We Are for the Dark (Six Ghost Stories) – Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

‘The Trains’ is the first Robert Aickman story in this collection and according to me, it’s his finest. We meet two young women – Margaret and Mimi – who venture on a hiking trip in the country. As far as personalities go, Margaret and Mimi could not have been more different; Margaret is intelligent and perceptive but not blessed in the looks department, while Mimi is the attractive one, and more extroverted of the two. Soon, the morning blends into the afternoon, and the gentle countryside gives way to a dreary, desolate valley. The two women make their way through this unfamiliar terrain, they increasingly rely on consulting the map; each time leaving behind an empty square outlined by four stones (used to place the map on the ground). They eventually come across a railway line and decide to walk alongside it in the hope of finding lodgings, particularly a certain house they had spotted on the map. The first inkling of something strange is revealed when they both stop for tea at the Guest House whose sole customer is a man who spooks them by stating how the valley is quiet with hardly any locals visiting it.  

When they finally make their way to the house, it towers over them, black and mysterious. An unkempt, dilapidated dwelling from the inside, its sole, eccentric occupants are the owner Mr Wendley Roper and Beech, his butler. Meanwhile, secrets and sinister happenings haunt the house – a madwoman waving a handkerchief everyday at the window, the dimly seen figure of the dead woman (the owner’s sister Miss Roper), possibly an apparition that haunts Margaret in the bedroom at night, and the looming dread the women feel of being trapped. Moreover, the constant, disturbing noise of trains as they rattle past at all times, even at odd hours during the night, serve as an unnerving force in the background.  All of these factors have their own weird logic as the story chugs along towards its dark, claustrophobic conclusion. ‘The Trains’, then, is a superb, enigmatic tale of madness, identity, entrapment and terror with a gentle opening that quickly transforms into something strange and surreal in its final moments complete with an unexpected twist.

Then Margaret became aware of something very horrible indeed: it began with the upturned dead face of an old woman, colourless with the exact colourlessness of the colourless light; and it ended with the old woman’s crumpled shape occultly made visible hanging above the trap-door in the corner of Margaret’s compartment-shaped room. Up in the attic old Miss Roper had hanged herself; her gray hair so twisted and meshed as itself to suggest the suffocating agent.

‘Three Miles Up’ is simply the best story penned by Elizabeth Jane Howard in this book, in fact the best story in this entire collection. Like the Aickman story, this tale also involves a trip, but on water. John and Clifford are in the midst of their holiday exploring the narrow canals of England on their boat. Of the two, John is the expert at maneuvering the boat, while Clifford’s job is to pour over the map and give directions. The canal holiday, however, is doomed right from the start. A slew of minor disasters dampen the spirit, the unpredictable weather only makes matters worse, and the continuous bickering between the two of them ratchets up the tension. The situation mysteriously improves when, on one of their moorings on the canal banks, they spot a young woman slouched against the bark of a tree. She is Sharon and she joins them on their journey, the perfect companion and truly a blessing, she is cheerful and a great cook. The atmosphere suddenly brightens up and it looks like the holiday is saved. But who exactly is Sharon? And why does she readily agree to accompany John and Clifford?

Meanwhile, John and Clifford are secretly vying for her affections, looking to impress her in their own way. But now they have a crucial decision to make. Since there are hardly any days left of their holiday, they must either turn around and proceed back along the same route they had traversed (not an exciting prospect given that the route was arduous), or take a left and arrive at the starting point from the other side (but it’s possible that they don’t have enough time to complete this route). However, when they arrive at the junction where they must make their decision, John spots a third route a bit further to the right. Ominously, this is where the map ends, and so what this unknown waterway entails remains mysterious to the party. In a fit of bravado, both the men decide to explore this route simple because they want to show off to Sharon how adventurous they are. Sharon, meanwhile, is enigmatic, as she goes along with their opinions but never ventures any of her own.

‘Three Miles Up’ is a perfectly paced, chilling story –  one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over the party of three as they navigate this alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying.

They saw no one else. They journeyed on throughout the afternoon; it grew colder, and at the same time more and more airless and still. When the light began to fail, Sharon disappeared as usual to the cabin. The canal became more tortuous, and John asked Clifford to help him with the turns. Clifford complied unwillingly; he did not want to leave Sharon, but as it had been he who had insisted on their continuing, he could hardly refuse. The turns were nerve wracking, as the canal was very narrow and the light grew worse and worse.

‘The Unsufficient Answer’ is another excellent tale where Leo Cust, a journalist, is entrusted with the task of travelling all the way to the Eastern part of Europe. His task? To convince sculptress Lola Hastings to make a brief but long overdue appearance in England. So far, entreaties in the form of letters sent to Mrs Hastings have produced no results, she has always provided vague answers for refusing to travel. Her presence in England is necessary to provide a boost to the sale of her artworks, which have stagnated, and now it is upto Mr Cust to find a way to lure her back.

But as soon as Mr Cust is accepted as a guest to Mrs Hastings’ home, an isolated castle built like a fort, Cust begins to notice bizarre things. The rooms are minimally furnished, bare and stark, arranged with black furniture and for most days Cust remains bored and frustrated with the hours stretching before him and not much to do. For the most part, Lola remains busy focusing on her sculpting, but at dinner transforms into a cultured woman conversing on a variety of topics. We are also introduced to her helper Miss Franklin, who is in charge of the day to day running of the castle, arranging meals and managing the complicated transportation arrangements of Mrs Hastings artworks across the continent to England. And yet, Cust notices the fractured nature of their relationship, as tensions between the two women reach a peak. Meanwhile, while Miss Franklin emits an air of foreboding, Mrs Hastings displays a streak of cruelty in her own personality. Things only get weirder when Cust encounters Felicity one night; she was clearly an inhabitant previously of the castle, but now appears as a ghost, there being something mysterious about her death. ‘The Insufficient Answer’, then, is another excellent tale of isolation, fear, paranoia, art and the trying relationship between two women who are completely cut off from the outside world.

Cust turned towards the warmth, exasperated and, unreasonably a little frightened. Then the bag fell to the stone floor and a tearing pain seemed to amputate his heart as he saw a young woman standing by the fire with one arm reaching up to the high mantelpiece.

‘Perfect Love’, the first story in this collection, penned by Howard, is also notable for the presence of a poltergeist in the form of a child who torments Maria Mielli, a world renowned opera singer. As she leaves behind a trail of suitors desperately in love with her and subsequently heartbroken, it traces the origins of her story – how a mysterious stranger (her patron) helps her launch her singing career and how she is later tormented by the presence of this poltergeist. Here, the narrator recounts this story through letters and newspaper clippings he chances upon while rummaging through his father’s paperwork.

And then we have the last Aickman story called ‘The View’ where a painter called Carfax, while on a cruise, encounters a woman (Ariel) who extends him an invitation to spend his vacation at her home, and they soon become lovers. The house is beautiful, tastefully decorated with lush furnishings and most of the rooms look out to the distant, mist-topped hills. To Carfax, these are perfect surroundings for a much needed rest and conducive to absorbing himself in his art. But he discovers an oddity – the room he is staying in has a very different view. The window looks out to the desolate sea and sky, a view that completely disorients him with respect to his bearings. It builds up to a point where he begins to notice subtle changes in the view over the days and he thinks he is probably losing his mind. This is a well-crafted tale of madness, love, ageing, happiness and what defines it and having a different perspective.

But one morning when he looked at the view for the first time that day, he noticed something nearer the house than the white, and lately multicoloured, buildings on the rather distant cliff edge. At first it seemed as though a big megalith, a rocky pillar of large circumference for a pillar, but medium height, had appeared midway between the sea and the house. At a second glance, however, what had looked a rock or a work of masonry, was seen by Carfax to be a huge motionless man, immobile and staring before him…

We Are for the Dark, then, is an unforgettable collection of weird tales; ghost stories that, according to the Introduction, defy obvious and easy explanations. While the strange and the supernatural are definitely potent forces in each of these tales, there is also a certain degree of psychological depth that enriches them.

Aickman seems to be greatly interested in architecture and all of his three stories collected here center around a house – the black house situated above the railway line in ‘The Trains’, the fortress-like castle inhabited by Mrs Hastings in ‘The Insufficient Answer’ which only highlights how alone she is, and the beautiful but deceptive holiday home with its disconcerting view in ‘The View’. My only quibble is that sometimes the language tends to be ornate and cumbersome; atleast that’s how a couple of the Aickman stories begin before settling into more breathable prose, and Howard’s ‘Perfect Love’ also suffers a bit from an awkward structure. But keeping these aside, I really enjoyed this collection, more so in this gorgeous hardback edition published by Tartarus Press, and would certainly recommend it.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

I absolutely loved Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2020 list. The Haunting of Hill House is also wonderful, and my lovely hardback edition with its striking cover and coloured black edges made for an excellent reading experience.

The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Once again, Jackson enthralls the reader with this superb opening paragraph, and this coupled with the brilliant opening lines of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, prove that she is truly the queen of openings.

UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND BUILD-UP OF HORROR

Coming to the principal characters, we are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.

Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel. First, there’s Eleanor Vance, 32, a lonely young woman who is at the crossroads in her life post the death of her bitter, ailing mother. Burdened with the duty of caring for her, Eleanor’s life so far has been narrow and colourless. She has a married elder sister Carrie, but the two don’t get along at all, and Carrie is particularly patronizing taking pleasure in bossing over Eleanor. We then have Theodora, bright-eyed, belonging to “a world of delight and soft colours”, a sharp contrast to Eleanor’s anxious, reserved personality. The third and last member of Dr Montague’s team is Luke Sanderson, the future heir of Hill House. The Sandersons allow Dr Montague to rent Hill House on the condition that Luke becomes part of his team. Clearly, Luke is a troubled man and his family hopes that some time away will bring his thieving and gambling activities to a halt, if only for a temporary period.

These succinct biographies have hallmarks of Jackson’s typical style – strange, unique and a little fantastic, but because they are presented to us under the guise of Dr Montague’s scientific, methodical process of selection, the reader can’t help but accept it at face value.

But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.

Once the party is ‘settled’ in the house, their task seems simple – record untoward events or disturbances and make notes, which Dr Montague will later analyse to determine whether there is really any psychic phenomena present, or it’s only an effect of subterranean waters. Jackson is brilliant at creating mood and atmosphere – the fear of the unknown, the mounting tension, the slow build-up of dread, and the uneasiness that creeps up on you. Heavy pounding on the doors, laughing noises, blasts of icy cold air at the entrance to the nursery, messages on the wall written in blood are some of the elements that throw the team off gear and also spook the reader. Dr Montague is compelled to give a warning…

Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.

But what makes Hill House haunted in the first place? Dr Montague regales his team with its history… as fascinating and eerie as their present circumstances – a tale that involves the eccentric designer of Hill House (Hugo Crain), a bitter and fractious relationship between two sisters (his daughters), death and suicide.

Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes lettings its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.

But what of the characters themselves? We know that Eleanor’s life until now has been dreary and lonely. The expedition to Hill House offers the chance of adventure and an escape from her grim circumstances. Earlier on, we are privy to Eleanor’s vivid flights of imagination, especially on her long, arduous drive to Hill House – a state of mind that could possibly offer some clue to subsequent events that unravel in the house. Indeed, for Eleanor, a world of dreams is a far better alternative, a chance to lose herself in another world because the reality of her actual existence is stark and claustrophobic.

What about Theodora? It’s interesting that Theodora’s biography at the beginning does not really tell much about her, no concrete detail is provided other than the fact that she shares an apartment with a friend with whom she has had a quarrel. At one point I did wonder whether Theodora is a figment of Eleanor’s imagination, or her alter-ego, I could not really be sure.

THEMES

The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women, notably sisters. Just like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the idea of sisterhood is central to this novel. Eleanor has a strained relationship with her elder sister, the animosity between the two Crain sisters forms one of the slippery foundations of what makes Hill House such a malevolent, monstrous place. But the crux really is the shaky relationship between Eleanor and Theodora which veers wildly from easy camaraderie and friendship to sudden quarrels, further exacerbated by Eleanor’s jealousy and rage and Theodora’s cruelty and suspicious nature.

The second theme is fear – how fear makes an individual vulnerable and malleable, easily influenced by fantastic events which would otherwise have been dismissed by the rational, thinking mind.

“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

Isolation, loneliness is the other core theme explored in this novel particularly through Eleanor’s persona. A friendless, isolated woman, Eleanor finds some modicum of acceptance and happiness at Hill House, even if the house is not receptive to its inhabitants. She opens up in a way she would not have thought possible. Somewhere she is also ridden with guilt, palpable in the way allusions to her mother keep popping up. She is a complex woman, afraid of being alone and yet her flights of fancy indicate that she prefers a life of seclusion and solitude.

THE STRANGENESS OF JACKSON’S REALM

Jackson does a marvellous job of subverting the readers’ expectations. Is this a straightforward horror story or is there a psychological angle to it?

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

We are never quite sure of the dynamics between Dr Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor, their interactions sometimes appear as unbalanced as the house they occupy; the reader feels the same sense of disorientation as the characters. Many a time, Eleanor feels like she belongs, that she is an integral part of the team, but there are other times when she perceives herself an outsider, and thinks the others are talking behind her back. Guillermo del Toro states in his introduction aptly states that the haunting in Hill House feels real and everyone within it is alone, trapped in their own minds and blind to the plight of others.

Despite a narrative charged with tension and menace, moments of comedy shine through. For instance, the deadpan refrains delivered by the dour, inflexible Mrs Dudley sends the team into fits of laughter at one point, even drawing out a chuckle from this reader. The late entry of Mrs Montague (Dr Montague’s wife) considerably livens things up. Her domineering attitude coupled with her so-called empathy for the lost souls roaming Hill House make for some hilarious conversations with her husband.

Jackson truly excels at creating rich, striking imagery. There is one extraordinary scene where after a quarrel, Eleanor and Theo head out of the house for a walk in the dark against their better instincts. The scene around them is all black and white – a dark road winding through a pitch black sky with luminous white trees dotting the landscape. It’s a scene drained of all colour, both girls walk side-by-side, completely immersed in their own thoughts until they suddenly come upon a vibrant picnic scene bursting with a slew of colours. And then Theo spots something utterly frightening, screams, and the two girls run for dear life back to the house.

They perceived at the same moment the change in the path and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it; Theodora took Eleanor’s arm and, afraid to stop, they moved on slowly, close together, and ahead of them the path widened and blackened and curved. On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.

CONCLUSION

The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.

To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.

Having now read both Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I do think the latter is the better of the two, but that does not make the former any less brilliant.

Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez (tr. Megan McDowell)

Last year, the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream made it to My Top 12 Books of 2017 list. As I pored over the glowing reviews of that novel in the cultural sections of newspapers, I stumbled across another translated book from Argentina, and published in the same year. But it was a short story collection this time, and penned by a writer previously unknown to me.

Not surprisingly, this collection was published by Portobello Books, a rather excellent publisher which introduced me to Han Kang and Andres Barba among others.

Things we lost in the fire
Portobello Books Edition

Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of 12 wonderful short stories steeped in Gothic horror. The difference – it’s not set in Victorian London, the birthplace of Gothic fiction, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In most of them, there are many traces of supernatural elements, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships.

The translator, Megan McDowell, gives some perspective on the backdrop against which these stories are set…

Argentina’s twentieth century was scarred by decades of conflict between the leftist guerrillas and state and military forces. The last of many coups took place in 1976, three years after Marian Enriquez was born, and the military dictatorship it installed lasted until 1983. The dictatorship was a period of brutal repression and state terrorism, and thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Since the dictatorship fell, Argentina has lived its longest period of democracy in recent history.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Dirty Kid.’ In this the narrator is a young woman who chooses to stay alone in her ancestral home in Constitucion, a dangerous neighbourhood rife with poverty and drug junkies. One day, she comes across a homeless woman, and her five year old son. Then, all of a sudden after some days they are gone, and the body of a child surfaces in the neighbourhood. Is it the same dirty kid?

There is a hint of violence that seeps through the story, but equally chilling is the narrator’s casual observation…

I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.

In Enriquez’s stories, violence is a part of everyday, ordinary life and occurs with alarming regularity. Children, in particular are at the centre of many of her stories, either as sufferers or the ones inflicting harm on others.

In one of my favourites ‘Adela’s House’, a group of three children are drawn to a house that is supposedly haunted, expressing extreme eagerness to explore it. But do all of them emerge unscathed?

The idea of going inside the house was my brother’s. He suggested it to me first. I told him he was crazy. And he was, he was obsessed. He needed to know what happened in that house, what was inside. He wanted it with a fervor that was strange to see in an eleven-year old boy. I don’t understand, I could never understand what the house did to him, how it drew him in like that. Because it drew him to it, first. And then he infected Adela.

In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the protagonist Pablo is a tour operator taking tourists on a popular murder tour of the city. But one day he sees the apparition of one of the most famous murderers on the tour.

But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes?

In her novel Fever Dream, Schweblin uses the supernatural as a tool to expose the ground realities in her country such as the harmful effects of agricultural pesticides. In a similar vein, Enriquez’s haunting and unsettling story ‘Under the Black Water’ mixes the eerie with the stark reality of Argentina’s hazardous, industrial waste dumped in a river.

He also explained to her that the Riachuelo’s deep and rotten stench, which with the right wind and the city’s constant humidity could hang in the air for days, was caused by the lack of oxygen in the water. Anoxia, he’d told her. “The organic material consumers the oxygen in the liquid,” he said…

Horror drips off the pages of this collection, and yet it’s not the only factor that punches you in the gut. Argentina has had a troubling past, it is still transitioning into a democracy, and is grappling with all the problems that a typical developing country faces. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.

Enriquez’ stories also explore relationships, in particular the weaknesses in men and their inability to understand the women they are in a relationship with.

‘The Neighbour’s Courtyard’ for instance focuses on a young couple; the woman is prone to depression, and how her partner just does not get it.

Paula convinced herself that it had been the stress from the move; she’d read once that moving was the third most stressful life event, after the death of a loved one and being fired. In the past two years she’d gone through all three: her father had died, she’d been fired from her job, and she’d moved. And then there was her idiot of a husband, who thought she could get over it all just by trying.

In a nutshell, this is a strange, macabre and superb short story collection, making Argentina a thriving hotbed of exciting literature. There’s loads to explore!

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

My Top 12 Books of 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to look back on the books that I greatly enjoyed during the year, and select the best among those.

I had a tough time whittling the list down to 12, but I absolutely loved the ones that I did end up selecting.

Three of these, I had already reviewed on my blog earlier, the rest I had not. For the ones I had reviewed earlier, I have given a brief snapshot and you can click on the book’s title, which will take you to the detailed review.

Top 12 of 2017

 

Without much ado, here is my list of my Top 12 books for 2017, and why I thought they were special…

A True Novel – Minae Mizumura   

A True Novel
Other Press Boxed Set

This novel was billed as a Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, and that greatly piqued my interest. I had loved Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I read it in college, and its tale about a brooding hero, and his tempestuous heroine captured my imagination.

But it would be a disservice to judge A True Novel solely by this comparison, because the novel is strong enough to stand on its own.  Read more