A Month of Reading – August 2021

August turned out to be a terrific month of reading. Barring My Phantoms, I read the rest of the four for #WITMonth, and all were excellent. However, my favourites were the Riley, Mizumura and Piñeiro. You can take a look at my full length reviews for each of them by clicking on the titles. So, without further ado, here are the books…

MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if the mother is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. 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. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

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. No place you can truly call home.

ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further. But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and knowing fully well that the police don’t take her seriously, she decides to approach Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but since then they had not been in touch.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.

A WOMAN by Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

Our narrator is an unnamed woman whose idyllic childhood takes a turn for the worse when her mother attempts suicide but fails. The apple of her father’s eye, but full of contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband, our narrator only begins to understand her mother’s plight when she finds herself eerily in a similar situation. Both women are trapped in a loveless marriage, our narrator in fact is frequently assaulted by her husband, and yet the two women respond differently. While the mother plunges into the depths of mental illness, our narrator fights back on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and the fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions. Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time and only heightens its power.

NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

That’s it for August. For September, I have almost finished reading Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, the latest Peirene title and very good, as well as Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the final volume in her ‘Living Autobiography’ series, and which has been simply terrific.

A Woman – Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

This unnamed woman is our narrator and from a certain vantage point several years later, she is now looking back on her past and recalling the events that have led up to her present circumstances. So there’s the benefit of hindsight, and also the necessary distance gained from those events to be able to analyse her situation with a certain modicum of detachment.

Our narrator’s first memories are of her childhood in Milan, those carefree days when she is blessed with robust health, charm and intelligence. She is the apple of her father’s eye and they share a special bond, while her mother never stands in the way of her wishes. Our narrator’s formative years are shaped by her father who guides her in her studies and her reading. She always excels in class and there is every indication of a bright future in front of her.

However, being thoroughly self-absorbed, her idyllic childhood blunts her to the harsher realities at home. The father is a dynamic, charismatic man but quite the tyrant. The mother is a frail woman, resigned and unhappy. As a young girl, our narrator has no qualms about displaying contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband.

The months passed, my mother’s sadness grew, Father’s attentiveness towards her dwindled, as did the shared walks; and I, not a little girl anymore, continued to live my life as if it wasn’t threatened in any way. Why? I was as absorbed in my admiration for my father as I had been when a child, but this alone hardly accounts for my blindness. Perhaps Mother herself, in her painful reticence about her illness, was avoiding an all too immature confidante: one who was too exclusively devoted, moreover, to the very person who was the source of her suffering.

When the father is presented with an opportunity to manage and lead a factory, the family relocates from the bustling metropolis of Milan to a smaller working class seaside town in the South. It would mean a disruption in her studies, but our narrator is not daunted and is struck by the beauty of the place. She begins to show an interest in working at the factory and the father encourages that ambition.

Things coast along smoothly until a tragic event causes our narrator’s best laid plans to go completely awry. When in a fit of abject despair, the mother attempts suicide, our narrator is shocked to the core. The mother survives, but her actions cast a pall of gloom over the entire family.

Subsequently, the mother’s over apologetic stance and feeble attempts to placate the father (in vain) only make matters worse. But the incident casts a new light on the father and changes the way our narrator perceives him. Disillusioned on learning that her father is having an affair, he is no longer the ideal she considered him to be, and when during a heated argument she sides with her mother, she is fired from the factory.

And herein lies the irony – Utterly alone and anchorless, our narrator finally begins to understand her mother, of her travails, of why she is so unhappy in a loveless marriage. At her most vulnerable, our narrator is lured by the attentions of a man working at her father’s factory and she gives in to him, if only to escape the desolate environment at home. After a night when he sexually assaults her, she is coerced into marrying him, and from then on even the most fragile connection she shared with her father finally breaks leaving her isolated.

In her marital home, our narrator is faced with the painful reality that there is not much to distinguish between her own predicament and her mother’s plight. With love and respect virtually absent in the marriage, the husband is a devious, cruel man subjecting her to persistent mental and physical abuse.

Utterly tormented, the only silver lining is the birth of her child, a son whom she loves unreservedly, who gives her a fresh purpose in life, whose upbringing and welfare gets her through her darkest days. But even then, moments of desperation seep in, and eerily similar to what her mother went through, our narrator’s fragile state of mind ultimately snaps as she plunges rock bottom.

And yet, unlike her mother who has plunged into the depths of mental illness, our narrator escapes that fate on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and a fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing. Her vocation for writing finds an outlet when she is offered a position at the offices of a feminist magazine in Rome. There, surrounded by like-minded people and serious thinkers, our narrator experiences a broadening of her mind and an expansion of her worldview.

I realized that after a prolonged paralysis, my critical facility had seemingly expanded and intensified; and at the same time I discovered that I had a kind of heartfelt nostalgia for all the things that my education had lacked. Poetry, music, the arts of colour and form remained almost unknown to me, while the whole of my body longed for the rapture they might bring; the thought by which I lived sometimes wanted to take flight, to mingle with light and with sound.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions.

But I sometimes tormented myself by thinking of the book that needed to be written; a book about love and sorrow that would be both harrowing and inspirational, relentless and compassionate; that would show for the first time what it was really like to be a woman now, and that for the first time would inspire in those unhappy brothers of ours, men, both remorse for the past and desire for a better future…

Was there a woman in the world who had suffered what I had suffered, who had received from both animate and inanimate things the lessons I had received, and who would know how to extract the essence from such an experience, to create the masterpiece that could properly represent a life?

Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time. This was an era when opportunities for women were pretty limited with not many avenues open to make a mark for themselves, they were still fighting for various rights (for instance, it was in 1911 that Italy’s first national Feminist Congress was formed which called for divorce rights for women). Yet Aleramo, through our narrator, questions why marriage cannot be a union of equal partners and how women need to fight for their own individuality to bolster their self-worth and in the process command respect from their children. She also explores how women have the right to lead a life outside of marriage and motherhood, a topic that sparks debate even today.

But in the early 1900s, when the odds were heavily favoured towards men in a marriage, our narrator knows that once she leaves her husband she will lose full access to her child, a notion she finds unbearable. The dilemma that confronts her, therefore, is this – Should she stay in a demeaning marriage for the sake of her child she loves deeply knowing fully well the loss of freedom that it involves, or should she escape her fate to pursue her dreams and hope that her son understands and respects her decision later?

Aleramo’s writing style is formal and pretty intense throughout, and the feverish tone of the worldviews and emotions expressed make it a tad difficult to read the book for longer stretches of time – while exhilarating, it also leaves you catching your breath, but in a good way. Indeed, given how the mood of the book is so passionate, it makes sense to savour this novel in measured doses to let it all sink in.

Fiercely bold, brave and eye-opening, A Woman, then, is a paean to feminism with its core message centred on a woman’s right to choose freely the destiny that she desires.

To love, to sacrifice oneself, and to submit! Was this what all women were destined for?

Notes from Childhood – Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. Our narrator’s big family comprises her parents, elder sisters (Irene, Marta, Georgina), and younger siblings (Susana and Eduardo).

Flickering and joyous, broken by only a single night, the first journey we made from Buenos Aires to Mendoza emerges from my memory like a landscape recovered through a misted pane of glass.

As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

She begins by describing the “three windows that looked into her childhood” – her father’s study with its imposing furniture upholstered in leather, a very formal place Norah could visit only occasionally; her mother’s sewing room, which was inviting and emanated warmth as the sewing baskets overflowed with ribbons and lace, a place where her children could unburden themselves; her eldest sister Irene’s room as she regaled them with tales of kidnappings, of elopements, and how she would one day run away from home.

Our narrator then dwells on her sisters and their personalities – the brooding and intense Marta, whose peeled hands “looked like the pages of a well-loved book whose edges curl backward.” There’s Georgina with her immaculate, poised figure, always ready to help with anything and the apple of their mother’s eye. Then there’s Susana, younger but closer to Norah in age, so that they bond better coupled with the fact that both have flaming red hair.  

Shards of surrealism, seen through the prism of a child’s vivid imagination, pierce these scenes. For instance, one such piece conveys how Norah always tried to slip into the faces of people she observed.

At the age of six, whenever I noticed a pronounced curve in the nose of any of the important men who filed through my house, I would laugh. Then I would slide into their faces, positioning my body inside to adjust to their silhouette.

Another touching snippet showcases the tragic death of her father’s horse and the deep impression it leaves on young Norah’s mind. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the horse could not adapt to its old age and was sidelined for a younger one.

He died of jealousy. That’s how I understood it, and that’s what I wish to keep on believing forever.

Of course, any family life is punctuated by its fair share of highs and lows, so while the birth of their youngest sister Esthercita brings immense joy to the family, the father’s death leaves them feeling adrift as they venture into an uncertain, unknowable future.

Occasionally news from the outside world penetrates the fabric of their domestic life. Even though Buenos Aires is physically and figuratively far away from Europe, the hotbed of strife during the First World War, snatches of it reaches the ears of the sisters inducing feelings of dread.

…the events of the First World War were for us a hazy, distant reality, and once settled in Buenos Aires we were so cut off from all that went on in the world that we ended up forgetting it entirely.

One afternoon, rumors flew through the neighborhood that the Germans were winning. Terrified, and convinced that their victory would mean any number of humiliations, that we would be forced to marry them and to speak their language, we decided to barricade ourselves in the house.

Our narrator, meanwhile, as a child is beset with fears and obsessions (“At one time, it occurred to me to make a list of my obsessions, to contemplate them coldly and perhaps try to free myself of one”). Her role is akin to that of a voyeur, as she observes her sisters and acquaintances surreptitiously, often hidden from full view – she snoops on Marta bathing naked in the moonlight, she peeks into a room where Irene is breastfeeding their younger brother, she yearns to spy on her French teacher’s daughter through a crack in the door so that she can see the latter faint during a dress fitting.

There is joy to be found in simple pleasures – an outing to the cinema (“a room filled with a thick and mysterious darkness we sensed would be unlike any other we’d known”) stimulates feelings of intense excitement and wonder; the crowning glory of those perfect Saturday nights is exemplified by hot baths at dusk complete with lit stoves in the bedrooms, warm towels and nightgowns; while Christmas conjures up glowing images of “huge parcels, that late, keen ritual, that poignant and slightly dreamy midnight…”

I loved to contemplate even more from the next day, in the tangible truth of the gifts that were proofs of its fleeting, mysterious, tender reality.

But this microcosm of a happy family is shattered when the father dies, plunging his wife and children into hardships and poverty, their misery amplified when they are compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – sell their piano.

Together, we all had sensed that the worse was to come, since though we’d suspected it many times, the sale of the piano was something we didn’t dare countenance for even an instant. The side table, the enormous mirror in the drawing room, and nearly all the furniture we brought from Mendoza had already gone, but giving up the piano represented a decisive, unmistakable poverty.

Our narrator is no stranger to poverty having glimpsed this condition early on in the book when a man approaches her father for a safety pin to fasten his shirt so that he can properly mourn the death of his wife – “I believe no case of poverty has touched me so much since then.”

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

In her afterward, translator Charlotte Whittle talks about how Lange was inspired by collage artwork  – characterized by varied images stuck together to produce one vibrant piece of art – while composing this memoir. An indication of this is given earlier on in the novel where our narrator entertained herself with her favourite pastime that involved “clipping words from local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles.”

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

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.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

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. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, 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. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

Three Summers – Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

August is Women in Translation Month, and I am happy that the first novel I chose to read, a foray into Greece, turned out to be such a good one, not surprising given that it’s from the ever reliable NYRB Classics.

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Set in a village a few miles from Athens, the first chapter is a picture of idyll – the sisters lying in a hayfield, the sky, the wildflowers and the three of them all melted into one. It’s the time for intense conversations and sharing secrets and this summer Katerina, who was otherwise excluded because she was the youngest, will also be part of her sisters’ confidences.

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us. Maria is sexually bold and the nucleus of attraction for most of the local boys including Marios Parigori, a budding doctor, who is passionately in love with her. But just as she is forward in acting on her desires, Maria displays an equal keenness for the traditional ideas of marriage and motherhood.

Infanta is a stunning beauty but distant, it is very difficult to fathom what’s going on inside her head. Inexpressive yet fearless, Infanta is initially drawn to Marios but later strikes up a friendship with Nikitas fuelled by their passion for horseriding. As their friendship deepens, Nikitas begins to harbor romantic feelings for Infanta, which both excite and torment him, since Infanta remains withdrawn and unwilling to express herself.

Our narrator, Katerina, is imaginative, rebellious and prone to throwing tantrums. Katerina loves being with her sisters but also treasures her time alone when she can lose herself in her thoughts and conjure up an imaginary world influenced by the books she reads.

When the sun’s glare tired my eyes and my limbs felt as if I had drunk sweet wine, I would go to the barn to find quiet, a quiet full of shade and the smell of hay. People and faraway places filled my quiet time there: coloured ribbons blowing in the wind, orange seas, Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Odysseus on the islands of Caplypso and Circe.

She falls deeply in love with David, an astronomer, who is temperamentally very different, but reciprocates her sentiments.

While Three Summers burns brightly with light, laughter and innocence, there are also darker currents that simmer underneath. This becomes apparent when we are provided a glimpse into friends and family whose lives are intricately woven with those of the three sisters. Indeed, through their stories, various themes are explored throughout the novel – marriage, motherhood, divorce, abandonment, abuse, sexual awakening, freedom and the bond between siblings.

Their mother Anna, recently divorced from their father Miltos, is beset by bouts of loneliness and sadness although she maintains a dignified presence. Miltos, a banker, never had much time for his wife engrossing himself instead in his hobbies. But despite the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, Maria, Infanta and Katerina bear them no ill will.

Anna was also nice. But ever since she got divorced she didn’t laugh much and she would only talk about her property and sew.

Early on in the novel, the clandestine past of their Polish grandmother (Anna’s mother) fascinates the three sisters, especially Katerina. When a musician visits their home, the Polish grandmother is so besotted with him that she abandons her husband (Dimitris, the Grandfather), and two daughters (Anna and Theresa) and runs off with him to travel the world. Her betrayal means that it is taboo to mention her name in the house, but Katerina can’t help wondering if her mother has been traumatized by that incident, and whether she and her sisters have not inherited some of their grandmother’s traits. Indeed, the Polish grandmother is a force in the novel although she’s never actually present.

Her sister Aunt Theresa, a painter dabbling in landscapes, portraits and still life, has not been lucky with men either. Katerina learns of her aunt’s history, which is marked by the one disturbing incident when she is raped by the man she was destined to marry. It leaves her scarred for life and understandably unable to form any attachments later.

Laura Parigori, Maria’s mother-in-law, is for the most part in her own world, stuck in her past where she revelled as part of an elite Corfu society.

Old memories like sunken ships at the bottom of the sea suddenly rose up from the depths of her soul: hazy, trembling, a broken steering wheel, a bent rudder, masts jutting into space, the drowned treading water.

But somewhere, Laura is also unhappy with her present circumstances and is possibly rebelling inside – rebelling against her womanly fate, the desire for something else dominant, something impossible, something she won’t dare do.

Then there’s Andreas, the ship captain, a character introduced later in the book who epitomizes the ideas of independence, adventure and travel as he sails the world to exotic destinations, never rooted to one place or one person.

Sexual tension throbs throughout the book. Prior to her marriage, Maria’s sexual encounter with a farmer’s son is charged with electricity, Nikitas’ growing passion for Infanta is thwarted by things left unsaid, and Katerina, overwhelmed by her desire for David, is overcome by jealousy when she observes his closeness with Laura Parigori.

As Maria settles down into her new role of a wife and mother, we observe a perceptible shift in the relationship between the siblings. Their bond is as strong as ever and yet things are not the same, at least not since Maria’s altered situation.

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own.

Will Maria find contentment in marriage and motherhood? Will the relationship between her and her husband transition into deep companionship when the first throes of romance are over?  Will Infanta ever devote herself to one man? Will Katerina settle down with David or will her desire to travel the world take over?

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

As the novel progresses, the tempestuous Katerina will unravel the mystery of her mother’s best kept secret, will gain some perspective on the life changing decision of marriage, and will hole up in her room for a week so that she can calmly make a choice that will alter the course of her life. But whatever the future holds for the three sisters, Katerina acknowledges that “certainly those three summers will play a role in our lives. I remember that first day of that first summer when we bought our big straw hats.”