Rattlebone – Maxine Clair

Last year I thoroughly enjoyed my first McNally Editions title – Winter Love by Han Suyin – and was keen to explore more from their catalogue. I settled on Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone which reminded me a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ wonderful Maud Martha, although the two books are very different in terms of style and presentation. My verdict? I absolutely loved Rattlebone and its characters who will linger in my mind for a long time.

Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone is a gorgeously written, heartbreaking compilation of eleven interlinked stories that capture slices of life of an African American community in 1950s Kansas City. It sensitively depicts the journey of Irene Wilson our protagonist from when she is eight years old to her last days in high school; she and her friends traverse a particularly rough terrain of tumultuous family life, challenges and heartaches of growing up, and the blight of occasional violence. Irene is often the central feature in each story, at other times she is on the periphery – the points of view sometimes shift and there are stories where the focus zooms on other members of her family or the black neighbourhood of Rattlebone where she resides.

For this review, I have deliberately refrained from writing on all eleven stories but will give a flavour of some of them followed by my overall impressions of the collection as a whole.

Irene is our narrator in the first story “October Brown”, a beautifully rendered tale of an eight-year-old trying to make sense of the complicated grown-up world of adults, the tenacity of familial bonds, and the sweet taste for revenge. We learn of Irene’s mother Pearl who is pregnant with a second child, her father James Wilson, and Irene’s sophisticated, fiery schoolteacher October Brown (“she became our grown-woman schoolteacher, the burnt brown of her left cheek was marked by a wavery spot of white: a brand, a Devil’s kiss”). Through Irene’s eyes, we witness the tumultuous relationship between her parents…

They were on opposite ends of the same track, and I knew from time and again that they would both speed up, bear down until they had only inches left between them, then they would both fall back and rumble until silence prevailed. Later my father would bring home orange sherbet and my mother would rub his back and they would both be laughing.

James and Pearl are fond of one another and yet James embarks on an extra-marital affair with October Brown during Pearl’s pregnancy (another married woman in one of the later stories will remark, “Some men act a fool when their wife is carrying a child“). Things are never quite the same after that but while a perceptible shift in the atmosphere at home is evident to Irene along with its cause, she can’t quite grasp the full meaning of it (“a no-name, invisible something had settled on us”). Afraid of her family breaking apart for good and the loss of quality time with her dad, Irene sniffs an opportunity to make her teacher pay for her actions.

The next story “Lemonade” is about music, differing religious views and beliefs, miracles, and the simple, unfettered gaze of children vis-à-vis complex perceptions of adults. The story begins with a subtle hint at the segregation prevalent in 1950s Kansas City; the neighbourhood of Rattlebone has only five to six inhabitants who are white. One day as Irene and her friends are enjoying their game of Lemonade out on the street, they are greeted by a white woman who preaches to them about the birth of Jesus and the holiness of his mother Mary. Calling herself Sister Joan, there’s a sense that she’s maybe trying to convert them to Roman Catholicism, but while the children don’t shun her, they are aware of where to draw the line. However, Sister Joan’s presence frightens a child of special needs called Puddin (Irene’s friend Wanda’s brother), and during one such encounter, she gifts him a necklace of beads; a gift that has forbidden written all over it and screams black magic to Irene. Meanwhile, we learn of Irene’s budding talent for music, and with the encouragement of their music teacher, she begins to learn and practice piano at Wanda’s home. But then the two girls witness a miracle that not only stuns them but also the community. The occurrence of this miracle culminates in a fierce debate on religious views in which Sister Joan finds herself embroiled – she is maligned by the adults, but the children are more forgiving. 

In “Water Seeks Its Own Level”, the focus shifts to Irene’s father James Wilson, who has just lost a well-paying job in a construction project for daring to protest about the differing treatment of the blacks as compared to the whites. James does not have it in him to head home yet and explain himself to Pearl. Instead, with ample time on his hands, he decides to stroll around the city. Meanwhile, floods have caused the Missouri river to swell dangerously, and while Rattlebone has been lucky to escape nature’s fury, some of the other low-lying areas have been completely inundated. While ambling along the town, James is restless, besieged by thoughts of living an unencumbered life, a life of action and adventure, and a non-paying physical job to sandbank the river offers that window of freedom for a brief period.

“Cherry Bomb” is a piercing, poignant tale of loss, the possibility of love, and growing up. A third-person account, it brims with the whiff of scorching summers, those languid carefree breaks between school terms infused with new friendships and budding romances. During one such summer vacation, Irene gets her first taste of young love, pursued by a boy called Nick who has taken a fancy to her. Nick’s attentions, not always welcome, often torment Irene, but when Nick gifts her cherry bomb, a firecracker that has already caused her cousin to lose an eye in a freak accident, Irene stores it in her secret box of keepsakes. It’s also a summer when Irene has taken to diary writing, and she laments at the fact that Wanda possesses a diary identical to hers, a diary that Wanda seems to have effortlessly purchased, while Irene had to save up to buy hers. When a tragedy subsequently occurs and fuels in Irene a searing sense of loss, her secret box of distilled memories causes her to wonder about things that could have been.

Another fine story is “The Roomers”, a first-person account by a new character called Mrs Pemberton whose husband Thomas Pemberton was introduced to the reader in an earlier story. When this story opens we learn that Mr and Mrs Pemberton have been running a boarding house for a long time, and the type of roomers they select has also changed significantly over the years. The Pembertons, especially Mrs Pemberton, are quite conservative and strict about the decorum to be maintained by their roomers. For this reason, the profile of their roomers is largely made up of teachers who are single, responsible, and not likely to engage in unsavoury behaviour. But the arrival of October Brown changes all that, at least in Mrs Pemberton’s eyes. October Brown is the embodiment of sophistication and elegance, and she has aspirations that are quite at odds with Mrs Pemberton’s traditional viewpoints. But when October Brown starts going out with a married man (“she wasn’t no more to him than a piece of poontang on a Saturday night”), its consequences unexpectedly cause a clash of principles between Mr and Mrs Pemberton – compassion versus keeping up appearances. But could this difference of opinion also be attributed to Mrs Pemberton’s jealousy and Thomas Pemberton’s yearning to be something that fate has denied him?

“A Most Serene Girl” is one of those stories that begins in a certain fashion and ends up in a different place, not what the reader expected. The story begins with a hard-hitting paragraph of violence – a man kills his wife with a knife, a gruesome act that clearly traumatizes his daughter Dorla, the witness to this horrific crime.

Dorla Wooten was the most serene girl in all of Lincoln Junior High. I never saw her talk behind anyone’s back. She never got loud in the lunchroom, or ran wildly when we changed classes. In the halls she glided along close to the walk with her head up and eyes straining forward as though something in the distance had caught her attention. And if you said anything to her, she looked down.

Psychologically scarred, Dorla has retreated into a shell, and out of sympathy Irene tries to befriend her but hits a stone wall. Meanwhile, Irene makes a new friend Geraldine, although the latter is reluctant to invite Irene into her home. The reason is soon clear – Geraldine resides with her mother in a basement flat of a building called a “tourist home” where rooms are rented for couples to have sex. Shame is what makes Geraldine hesitant to invite Irene into their home at first, and Irene is sympathetic. Irene’s feelings of sympathy for both Dorla and Geraldine possibly stems from a sense that she comes from a secure place, a relatively happier home. But then Irene makes a shocking discovery at the tourist home that upends this perceived security and causes her to look at Dorla and Geraldine in an altered light.

 “The Great War” is a short piece on Irene’s mother Pearl, a woman who has always “been waiting”, her mounting frustration with her life pretty evident as she ponders on the elusive meaning of love. “Secret Love” is a finely crafted story on the stigma of mental illness, the breakdown of family life, the angst of separation, and how shared family troubles can become a catalyst for deeper friendships.

Rattlebone, then, is a simmering cauldron of myriad characters whose lives and actions enhance the richness and beauty of this collection and brings to the fore the complex dynamics of communities. The milieu of Rattlebone may appear small and inconsequential but the range of feelings, emotions, and experiences of its inhabitants is universal. Death, trauma, and violence co-exist with kindness and compassion. Wives grapple with their husbands’ wayward ways. Unwed mothers bear the burden of patriarchal thinking and struggle to be accepted. Some children suffer alienation and isolation, others a sense of shame often a consequence of their parent’s actions. But a feeling of community spirit is also palpable – tragedies often bring families together as do wondrous miracles. At the centre of it, is our protagonist Irene Wilson whose personal experiences and relationships will mold her character and influence how she sees the world.

I hated that. I hated to hear her say women have needs. I hated that dark sea of mysterious passions women were supposed to have, that apparently made them behave in uncontrollable ways, like in all those magazines. Some women. I was never going to dip into it.

These are beautiful, sharply-observed stories with their tender portrayal of characters who display a quiet strength, an inner reserve that compels them to dream big and carry on despite obstacles and hardships.

There’s such a variety of themes explored – the meaning of love, the yearning for a stable family life, the excitement of new friendships, the sorrows of growing up, the power of dreams and aspirations, the disappointment of thwarted hopes and desires, the clash between modern and traditional values, the pain of adultery, cheating and shame, death and random violence, and so on.  Ever present is the stain of racism and segregation – it does not always form the focal point of the stories but it does seep in, stubbornly lingering in the background and occasionally coming to the fore.

In terms of structure, every story introduces a new character while familiar characters introduced in the earlier stories reappear in the later ones thereby adding much depth to each of them, and while Irene’s story unfolds linearly, each story feels complete by itself. The writing style is clear and uncluttered, but what also stands out is the musicality of the language – a wonderful symphony of poetic prose and colloquial diction, a singular manner of expression that perfectly captures the thoughts, conversations, and views of a community and makes its characters feel intensely real.

Spring was unraveling everywhere. Summer was coming when I would go hunting for wild greens with my father, when we would be up in the warm, damp mornings taking his gunnysack with us along the railroad tracks all the way to the woods. Summer was coming when he would show me which was dandelion and which was dock, which was pokeberry and which was nettle. We would bring back morels and truffles for my mother to dip in egg and crackers and fry them crispy brown. Summer was coming and maybe my father would come back. 

Profound, gentle, wise, and laced with empathy, Rattlebone is a superb collection of vibrant, bittersweet sketches of small-town life that deserves a much wider audience. Highly recommended!


A Month of Reading – March 2023

March was a slow reading month for me, it started off well but I barely read much in the last couple of weeks due to various distracting factors. So just four books, but they were great, so I really can’t complain. I continued to participate in Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a contribution to Cathy’s ‘Reading Ireland Month 2023’.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the four books…You can read the detailed reviews on the first three by clicking on the title links.


Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life. The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road.

The next two sections focus on the Derdon and Bagot families respectively and are some of the finest stories she has written. The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple. In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. The highlight of the collection is the last story which also lends the collection its name – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.

The stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing.

CRAMPTON HODNET by Barbara Pym  

Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.

The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age. We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to hot up with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer who possibly becomes interested in Miss Morrow, and the entry of the idealistic and intelligent student Barbara Bird with whom Francis embarks on an affair.

Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships and Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy.

IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes

The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively.

Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place; it’s an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective.


Death at La Fenice is the first book in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice, and I liked it so much that I plan to read more.

The novel opens during a concert performance at Venice’s famed opera hall La Fenice where Maestro Helmut Wellauer, a world-renowned conductor is found dead in his dressing room from cyanide poisoning between the second and third acts. Wellauer was a well-known and deeply respected figure in the music circles and his death mounts the pressure on the Venetian police to find the murderer. Suspects are plenty, chief among them being Wellauer’s third wife who was beckoned to her husband’s dressing room for a brief chat which ultimately never took place; Wellauer was also seen arguing with a couple of performers from the orchestra he was conducting. One of them is a famous singer rumoured to be in a relationship with a rich American woman settled in Venice.

As Brunetti digs deeper, Wellauer’s unsavoury past begins to unfold (“As a musician, he was as close to perfection as a man could come. It was worth putting up with the man to be able to work with the musician”) – he was possibly a Nazi sympathizer as well as a homophobic with a penchant for blackmail and interfering into the lives of his colleagues and family. And Brunetti realises that finding his killer in the present is to unlock the key to Wellauer’s past.  

In the midst of all this, we get a bit more color on Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola who comes from a rich, aristocratic family, and an easy relationship despite the differences in their backgrounds.

For reasons he had never understood, she read a different newspaper each morning, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, and languages from French to English. Years ago, when he had first met her and understood her even less, he had asked about this. Her response, he came to realize only years later, made perfect sense: ‘I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told.’ Nothing he had read in the ensuing years had come close to suggesting that her approach was wrong.

For the most part, Guido hates attending social gatherings at his in-laws’ palatial Venetian home, but they have unmatched connections, and during one point in the case when it seems to be heading nowhere, Guido attends one such soiree to get a flavour of the social circles that Wellauer himself possibly frequented.

But Venice with all her allure and mystery is as much a character in the book as the rest; the novel is drenched with a vivid sense of place and Leon effectively captures its two sides – the dirty politics of this canal city, and its magic that draws in so many visitors like moths to a candle flame. Here’s Venice at night when it is empty of day trippers:

But these were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzo lining the Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty. A boat that, during the day was making a delivery of soap powder or cabbages, at night became a numinous form, floating toward some mysterious destination. The fogs that were common in these winter days could transform people and objects, even turn longhaired teenagers, hanging around a street corner and sharing a cigarette, into mysterious phantoms from the past.

That’s it for March. In March I had started reading All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, both of which have spilled over to April so they will be featured in my April reading post. Also on the agenda are the two Iris Origo diaries – A Chill in the Air and War in Val d’Orcia as part of the “NYRBWomen23” readalong.

The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin – Maeve Brennan

I must read more Maeve Brennan, she’s a fab writer. I’ve only read her novella The Visitor several years ago which I remember liking very much at the time about a young woman who returns to Dublin after six years (from Paris) to visit her grandmother, a cold unforgiving woman.  The inner pages of The Springs of Affection reveal that I bought the book in 2012, and as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2023 (#readingirelandmonth23), it felt like the time was right to finally pick it up after a decade. What a brilliant read it turned out to be!

Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life.

The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road. In the first, “The Morning After the Big Fire”, when a fire breaks out, Maeve revels in being the first one to deliver the news to the neighborhood; in “The Old Man and the Sea”, when Maeve’s mother buys a dozen apples from an old man, little does she realise that this act of kindness will turn into a burden. In “The Barrel of Rumors”, Maeve is fascinated by the Poor Clare nuns, their chapel with its barrel, and all the mystery surrounding it. These are lovely snapshots of family life in Dublin and some of these elements make their way into the two sets of stories to follow.

We begin with the Derdon section, which William Maxwell, in his introduction called “clearly her finest stories” and I cannot agree more.


The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple.

In the first story, “A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances”, we are presented with a scene between Hubert and Rose that forms a sad touchstone of their married life – the desire to plot against each other, secretly that only highlights the increasing lack of communication and hostility between the two.

The couple is in their fifties; married for over thirty years living in a house in Dublin, and it is very clear from the beginning that despite living together under the same roof, Hubert and Rose lead different lives. Hubert is a man of routine, working as a salesman in a garment store; Rose’s entire existence has been defined by the confines of their home. Rose ensures that Hubert has his breakfast when he leaves for work and his tea when he is back home, but otherwise there is hardly a word spoken between the two, and for the most part Hubert is glad of the opportunity to be left alone and have his peace. The couple’s son John has left home for the priesthood and both father and mother are disappointed for different reasons – Hubert because he had high hopes for his son in terms of a meaningful career; Rose because she adored and doted on John and with him gone, her sense of remoteness is complete.

Part of the reason why the couple is so mismatched is their personalities. Hubert has a more refined persona and a sharp tongue; he is prone to mocking people. Rose, by contrast, is tentative, distinctly helpless, with a furtive air about her that increasingly irritates Hubert. Hubert also has a strained relationship with John, the two don’t get along and what frustrates Hubert is how mother and son seem to be constantly ganging up against him, secretly sharing jokes or conversations, a closed world into which he has been refused entry.

When the child was born she was much happier and she seemed easier in her mind, but then she became completely wrapped up in the child. It was unhealthy and wrong, the way she came to depend on John even before he was big enough to walk. Then she made John afraid of him, too. He would hear the two of them chattering away, but when he would open the door and go into the room where they were, they would both fall silent. He would catch them exchanging glances that excluded him. 

Hubert is also ashamed of Rose, of her countryside roots, the affectation and false airs she assumes when they are with people, only reinforcing his view that the place Rose is most comfortable at is her home, although she is desperately unhappy even there. Rose is always on the edge, does not know how to handle criticism, gets hurt easily, and is subsumed by the view that the world is constantly mocking and judging her. Her only respite is her son John on whom she showers all her love, maybe too much; she is an utterly possessive mother who might be stifling John, although we never learn this from John himself.

One minute she would produce a smile of trembling timidity, as though she had been told she would be beaten unless she looked pleasant, and then again, a minute later, there would be a grimace of absurd condescension on her face. And before anyone knew it, she would be standing or sitting in stony silence, without a word to say, causing every- body to look at her and wonder about her. And if she did speak, she would try to cover her country accent with a genteel enunciation, very precise and thin, that Hubert, from his observation of the world, knew to be vulgar. He felt it was better to leave her where she felt at ease, at home. Somehow she wasn’t up to the mark. She wasn’t able to learn how things were done or what to say. She had no self-confidence, and then, too, her feelings were very easily hurt. If you tried to tell her anything she took it as an insult. Hubert thought it was very hard for a man in his position to have to be ashamed of his wife, but there it was, he was ashamed of her. And he was sorry for her, because her failure was not her fault. She had been born the way she was. There was nothing to be done about it.

The Derdon marriage wasn’t always unhappy though. Flashbacks offer a glimpse of the earlier days of their marriage when they move into a two-room apartment helped by their friend Frank Guiney. We see the gaiety and hopes of a promising future, and Hubert’s decision to buy a bigger house seems to reinforce that optimism, but that turns out not to be the case. Rose misses those early heady days of their time in those two small rooms and slinks into despondency which angers Hubert who is also tentative about this big decision to move, and his sharp, unkind remarks greatly hurt Rose.

The second story, A Free Choice”, takes place several years earlier, when Rose is a young woman, not yet married to Hubert. The scene of action is a dance held in the grand Ramsay ballroom, and it’s a setting that is special to Rose because it stirs up fond memories of her father. Rose’s father dies when she is just ten years old, and that loss affects her profoundly even during adulthood; she hasn’t entirely recovered from it.

Whatever she might have been, laughing, solemn, hopeful, melancholy, serene, unquiet, ambitious, or whatever she might have become, she was now only tame. She had turned tame when her father died, as she might have turned traitor to a cause she had once been ready to give her life for. She had known her father was dead but not that he was gone, and even when she began to know he was gone she refused to believe that he was gone out of sight, and she put the strength of a lifetime into her struggle to keep him in sight until she was sure he was safe. She had forgotten all that was familiar to her in her struggle to stand by the one who had made it all familiar.

Rose and her father shared a special bond, she adored him and he thought the world of her much to her mother’s chagrin who thought that Rose unnecessarily had false airs about her and was too gullible. The Ramsay ballroom holds significance for Rose because of the furniture and furnishings; her father was the interior decorator to Mrs Ramsay and her father’s vivid descriptions of the room and fine materials when she was a little girl come alive to her when she finally sees it for the first time in person.  In this story, Rose loves being the centre of attention when she is asked to dance by Jim Nolan, a charming good-looking young man, and she is thrilled to be perceived as interesting to him, only to be ditched later. We also get an inkling of the beginning of a romance between Hubert and Rose, his daily visits to the family shop in Wexford, even when he resides in Dublin, he is struck by Rose’s beauty, although there’s a whiff of that mistrust even then – Rose is not sure about Hubert’s real feelings towards her, and Hubert remains tentative because he discerns Rose’s indifference.

There is something pitiful about Rose in “The Poor Men and Women”, a story that dwells on her propensity towards martyrdom, that craving for some modicum of appreciation that never seems to come her way. In this story, the poor and the destitute often knock at her door for alms and Rose cannot stop herself from offering them something, often regretting the things she has given away as soon as they are out the door. In one such instance, a young mother and her impudent child are allowed to come inside and take a look at the house, and in a sudden act of pity and without thinking she lends them her brooch given to her by her mother that has sentimental value; the duo makes a hasty retreat once they have received the gift before Rose can change her mind…Rose does regret her action but by then it is too late. There’s another episode where she spots an old man in the town centre, a man who had often come knocking at her door. She attempts to strike up a conversation with him, a move that drives him away leaving her bewildered.

We get a whiff of a lack of genuineness in Rose’s attempts at helping the poor; she seems to do it out of a desperate need to be acknowledged as a benefactress, a yearning to be a martyr. There’s a general air of hopelessness and despondency about her, particularly reflected in one episode when she is sick and confined to bed, and Hubert’s act of kindness is misunderstood. 

“An Attack of Hunger”, was to me the finest of the Derdon tales – gut-wrenchingly honest and visceral as Brennan further twists the knife already deeply wedged into their marriage. We find Rose increasingly despondent about John having left for priesthood; she feels abandoned by him and longs for him to return.  In a marriage where Rose and Hubert’s relationship is marked by furtiveness, the need to stay clear of each other, and secretly outmaneuver each other, this is a story where we see the couple honestly express their views but it’s a nasty confrontation rather than a healthy discussion. Rose accuses Hubert of driving John away, and Hubert reveals the real reason why John leaves their home, an unpalatable truth that Rose cannot bring herself to accept.

“Oh, of course you’d have to say that,” said Hubert. “Of course you can’t face facts. But I’ve had to face facts. He was sick of you and I’m sick of you, sick of your long face and your moans and sighs-I wish you’d get out of the room, I wish you’d go, go on, go away. I don’t want any tea. All I want is not to have to look at you anymore this evening. Will you go?”

That craving to be a substantial presence in her son’s life is probably a remnant of the close relationship she had with her father which she hopes to replicate with John. Rose daydreams and conjures up scenarios where she plays a pivotal life in John’s calling as a priest, where she can completely devote herself to his cause and be recognised by his lot for her sacrifice.

“Family Walls” opens with a scene that unsettles Hubert…As soon as he enters the home with his key, he observes Rose discreetly closing the kitchen door. There’s pin-drop silence in the house, and had it not been for Hubert observing Rose close the door on him, he would have thought there was no one home but him. It’s a moment that frustrates Hubert because he is suddenly gripped by mounting indecision – should she go into the kitchen and have it out with Rose, or should he pretend that nothing has happened? This story is mostly from Hubert’s point of view and focuses on his personality – his propensity to make scathing comments, and how he inwardly derides the customers he is required to serve as part of his job. Hubert laments that he “wished he had someone to talk to”, once again accentuating the chronic loneliness and alienation that has formed the fabric of their marriage. He is at a loss when it comes to the best way of having a conversation with Rose that does not make her feel cornered and is generally unsure of what he needs to do when he is around her. 

In “The Drowned Man”, Rose is no more, and Hubert realises that he doesn’t feel the grief at his wife passing away; with such grave misunderstandings over the years in their marriage, what Hubert experiences is indifference. But the world does not know his true emotions and Hubert is sharply aware of the difficulty of expressing them. His closest family member, his sister, mistakenly assumes that he is grieving and he behaves according to what is expected of him in this situation; but his biggest grief is not Rose’s death but the fact that there is no one he can talk to or who can truly understand the unflinching truth about his relationship with Rose.

The day was almost worn out. The light was thin – fading light that left everything visible. That evening’s light was helpless, the day in extremity, without strength enough left to dissemble with sun and shade, with only strength enough left to touch the world as it withdrew forever from the world. The evening light spoke, and what it said was, ‘There is nothing more to be said’. There is nothing more to be said because what remains to be said must not be said. It is too late for Rose. Hubert was silent. He had nothing to say, and in any case there was no one to hear him.

As we read the stories, we increasingly wonder how Hubert and Rose stayed married for so long, a point which perplexes Hubert too in the final story…

What had kept them together all these years, or what kept any two people together, or what kept people going and doing as they had been told they ought to do. When had all this obedience begun and who had marked out the appointed way where men and women walked without protest, and most of the time without complaining?

Loneliness in a marriage, emptiness, feelings of unfulfillment and abandonment, disappointments in relationships, and life having not panned out as per expectations are some of the broader themes explored in this bleak but marvellous collection.  These are some of the most sensitively written, poignant stories and what makes them remarkable is how Brennan evokes shifting loyalties in the reader towards both Rose and Hubert – they are tragic and frustrating in equal measure; yet despite being such flawed individuals, it is hard not to feel for them.


In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. In the first story, “The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary” we are introduced to Martin and Delia Bagot and their two daughters Lily and Margaret both aged below ten. The family is complete with a dog called Bennie (rescued by Delia from a group of boys who were tormenting him), and two cats (Rupert and Minnie). Delia and the girls love the animals, but Martin detests them, and while for the most part, Delia accedes to Martin’s wishes when it comes to the animals she resists. As a result, Delia is constantly anxious to ensure that the animals do not get in Martin’s way.

We also glimpse cracks in Martin and Delia’s marriage. Not wanting to be disturbed when he comes home from work, Martin sleeps in a different room, and what Delia perceived to be a temporary solution appears to have transformed into something more permanent. Martin has shifted some of his belongings and books there, and Delia is deeply confused about this development but can’t bring herself to express it clearly to Martin. Meanwhile, Martin feels like the family is a burden to him, he is a solitary man and for the most part, wishes to be left alone. He can’t stand the children making too much noise and he hates the animals. Even Delia’s thoughtful gesture of brightening his room with a vase of flowers on their twelfth wedding anniversary fills him with dread, unleashing a stream of bitter thoughts. The readers get the impression that Martin would have been happier as a bachelor rather than a family man.

But just like the Derdons, the Bagots were happy in the earlier days of marriage snatches of which are offered to us in the stories “Christmas Eve” and “The Shadow of Kindness”. However, tragedy soon strikes, their first baby, a son, dies when only three days old and marks the point from where rifts begin to develop. This is touchingly explored in the story “The Eldest Child”, the immediate moments of intense grief into which Delia is plunged and her yearning to be left alone. Martin, used to his wife’s quiet, obedient personality, is bewildered by Delia’s rage and outburst at the baby’s death and there’s a sense that the couple is lonely in their tragedy, each is affected but can’t quite navigate this period together and so suffer alone.

Delia hasn’t quite recovered from her son’s death and remains protective of her daughters. She is often sleepy during the daytimes, subconsciously warding away her fits of anxiety. Her life is defined by her children to the point that she often feels adrift in their absence…

Even if she had children, a woman should have a life of her own that would stand up when the children were out of the house for any length of time. She knew that. It was not right to let yourself get so lost in your children that you could find no trace of yourself when they were gone. What would she do when they grew up?

The Bagot section is full of little sketches of domesticity which beautifully blend the physical descriptions of their house – the garden, sitting room, bedrooms – with the interior lives of its inhabitants. The neatness and coziness of the house is vividly evoked, especially during Mrs Bagot’s hours of quiet solitude at home…

Mrs. Bagot turned from the street and from Minnie and from the ferns, and was surprised to see how like a mirror the big naked window in the back room was, but like a mirror that you could see through, a mirror that went both ways and showed both sides. It was like a painting. She saw the wet, reluctant day – light air out there in the garden, and the rain was falling so strong and straight that she was sure she could make out every separate driving line of it. Beyond and through the rain, as in a dream, there were the indistinct colors of the garden…

As for the stories themselves, in “The Sofa”, the arrival of a new couch for the front sitting room is a matter of much excitement to Delia and her daughters, a day when her daily duties are abandoned in eager anticipation. “Stories of Africa” sees an old Bishop, a close friend of Delia’s grandmother, pay a visit to the Bagot home, while in the “The Shadow of Kindness”, Delia is comforted by her shadow which she sees for the first time in the children’s bedroom, a shadow that reminds her of her mother, something like a guiding force.

The last and the longest story of this section called “The Springs of Affection” lending the collection its name, is a fine one – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.

In this story Martin has just died, Delia had passed away eight years earlier, and the protagonist is Min Bagot, Martin’s eighty-seven-year-old twin sister. Min had been staying with Martin in Dublin out of a sense of duty after Delia’s death but now with him gone too, she is glad to move back to her flat in Wexford albeit with most of Delia and Martin’s furniture and possessions which she self-righteously feels she is entitled to for some misplaced sense of grievance all these years.

Through Min’s memories, we are given a window into the Bagot family’s past; their seemingly close and harmonious lives, before Martin meets Delia. Consisting of the mother, Min, Martin, and two more sisters; it’s a close-knit family and Min resents Martin for breaking the family code of sticking together for life and instead abandoning them to marry Delia. The other two sisters, subsequently, push off to lead their lives too, and Min seems not to have forgiven Martin for breaking them apart.

Now everyone’s dead and Min is content with being the last one standing in the family. Min is one of those people who is happy with the way things are without moving forward and through that limited yardstick judges the decisions and the lives of those around her. Her so-called acts of sacrifice appear false and are tinged with streaks of selfishness; she’s often seeking appreciation but faces contempt instead when her hypocrisy is visible to others but herself.

Min, particularly, can’t get the day of Delia and Martin’s wedding out of her mind; she is mesmerized by the gloriously beautiful weather, the lush surroundings, and the grandeur of Delia’s family’s country mansion, the rooms transforming into dazzling spaces of air and light. But what is an occasion of happiness for everyone present is something else entirely for Min – she feels trapped and suffocated.

What Min remembered of that day in the garden by the Slaney was that she felt worn out and dried up, and trapped, crushed in by the people who were determined to see only the bright surface of the occasion. They could call it a wedding or anything they liked, but she knew it was a holocaust and that she was the victim, although nobody would ever admit that.

At the end of the day, Min might not grudge her own modest, limited existence when viewed by itself but she seems jealous of others having moved on, which in sharp contrast throws a harsh light on her stifled life…reaching a point where she feels vindicated for outliving all of them.

To watch the end of all was not much different from watching the beginning of things, and if you weren’t ever going to take part anyway, then to watch the end was far and away better. You could be jealous of people starting out, but you could hardly be jealous of the dead.

What’s terrific about the Derdon and Bagot stories is how the essence of both marriages is viewed from various angles akin to observing each facet of a prism. The stories don’t unfold linearly. Rather, each story is a world unto itself where facts, thoughts, physical surroundings, and personalities that form the foundation of both marriages are often repeated, but explored differently and uniquely like old wine in a new bottle. The couples in Brennan’s stories are unhappy and tragic, lonely even when together. They don’t quite know how to communicate with each other, all the more heightened by the impression that one honest conversation can snap an already fragile relationship. The women, particularly, are consumed by nameless fears and anxieties, they don’t have a purpose of their own outside the home, and their lives are mostly governed by men and a deep sometimes overbearing love towards their children. All of these elements possibly reflect Irish society at the time, a milieu that was deeply religious and frowned upon divorce.

In a nutshell, the stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing. Highly recommended!

Great Books by Women on International Women’s Day

Happy Women’s Day! Here are some excellent books written by women, a selection across forms and genres so that there’s something for everyone.

Barring a couple of books, you can read the detailed reviews on the rest by clicking on the links.

20th Century Women’s Literature


These are stunning trilogies. The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

Translated Literature

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

Short Stories

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

Contemporary Lit

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.


MORE WAS LOST by Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.



I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

Noir / Crime

IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes

The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. I’m reading it again this month for #NYRBWomen23 and thoroughly enjoying it (a lot of it is familiar and yet there’s so much I’ve forgotten).

It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively. I plan to put up a detailed review once I’ve finished the reread, but meanwhile here’s a quote from the novel to savour…

“A murderer is a murderer as…an actor is an actor. He can stop acting professionally but he’s still an actor. He acts. Or an artist. If he never picks up another brush, he will still see and think and react as an artist.”



A wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.

These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.



This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is steeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present.



Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the memorable Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things get shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

Novel Series

THE NEAPOLITAN QUARTET by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!



Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.

A Month of Reading – January 2023

Well, 2023 has begun on a fabulous note, I read some stellar books this month; a mix of translated lit (from Iceland, Japan & Mexico), a collection of short stories, a contemporary novella, and a surreal feminist tale. I also enjoyed contributing to various reading challenges and readalongs, notably #NYRBWomen23, #JanuaryInJapan & #Japaneselitchallenge16, #NordicFINDS23 and A Year With William Trevor.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the six books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.


In The English Understand Wool, our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject. Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other. And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. 

The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates. It’s a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.

THE HEARING TRUMPET by Leonora Carrington

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. Marian is not welcome in the house and with the aid of a hearing trumpet gifted to her by her charming loquacious friend Carmella, Marian’s learns of her family’s plot to park her in an old age home.

The old-age home is unlike anything she had imagined, and Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Just superb!

AFTER RAIN by William Trevor

Tender and exquisite, After Rain is a finely chiseled collection of twelve stories that is truly a joy to savour.  The first, ‘The Piano Tuner’s Wives’, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first; while ‘A Friendship’ is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Child’s Play’ is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved; the titular story After Rain’ is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. 

Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully.

SALKA VALKA by Haldór Laxness (tr. from Icelandic by Philip Roughton)

Salka Valka is a wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel; an immersive, brilliant, often harrowing tale of a beleaguered fishing community and the indomitable spirit of a woman who prides on her independence and strives to improve their lot.

In the opening pages of Salka Valka, a coastal steamer stops at the port of a small, remote fishing village called Oseyri. Nobody can envisage a life here, but on that cold, bleak winter’s night two figures emerge from the steamer – a woman called Sigurlina and her 11-year old daughter Salvor (Salka Valka). Sigurlina and Salka Valka have made this journey from the North, certain circumstances having driven them away, and while Reykjavik seems to be their final destination, Sigurlina, reduced to a state of penury, cannot afford the cost of the trip further. Oseyri, then, becomes her destination for the time being, she hopes to find a job that will help her make enough money to embark on the journey south. However, fate as we shall see has other plans…

Salka Valka is divided into four sections, each section comprising two parts – the first section focuses on Salka’s time in Oseyri as a teenager, and the second section fast forwards to several years when she is a young woman, independent with her own house and a share in a fishing boat. One of the core themes that the novel addresses is the ugly side of abject poverty and the struggles of the working class, and the second half particularly becomes more political as the debate between capitalism and Bolshevism reaches fever pitch. Epic in scope and ahead of its times, Salka Valka, then, is a simmering cauldron of various delectable ingredients – a coming-of-age tale, a statement on world politics, a strange beguiling love story, and an unforgettable female lead.

THE WAITING YEARS by Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by John Bester)

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. In the very first chapter, she is sent to Tokyo to find a respectable young girl who will become her husband’s mistress, a terrible and heartbreaking task she is compelled to carry out. As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time. Enchi beautifully captures the internal turmoil that rages not just within Tomo but also within Suga, Yukitomo’s mistress. The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. 

PEDRO PÁRAMO by Juan Rulfo (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance. In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.

Pedro Páramo is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present; it’s a book suffused with rich imagery that lends it much power.

That’s it for January. I have begun my February reading with Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for #NYRBWomen23 as well as Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone for #ReadIndies and they have been terrific so far.