The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

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. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking task, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another mistress Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s ability as Yukitomo’s manager when it comes to matters relating to handling his plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

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.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

2022 Honourable Mentions: Five Superb Short Story Collections

Last week, I released a post on My Best Books of 2022; books that gave me much joy this year and would heartily recommend. As I reflected on my reading, I noticed that I had read quite a few short story collections in 2022, certainly more than in previous years. Two of them – Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Trouble with Happiness – made it to my year end list. But there were five collections that despite not making the cut were still great.

This post is to highlight those five short story collections, sort of my ‘honourable mentions’ if you will (You can click on the links for detailed reviews)…

WE ARE FOR THE DARK by 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 best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.

A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (tr. from Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

ART IN NATURE by Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.

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.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. from Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.

My Best Books of 2022

2022 turned out to be a superb year of reading. Purely because I wanted another reason to showcase my reading highlights, just like last year, I decided to strike a balance between sticking to a specific number and yet not being too rigid about it. So, 21 books it is!

I didn’t read as much translated literature as I would I have liked, something I hope to remedy in 2023, but in the meanwhile from the ones I did read, 6 translated works made the cut covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Danish, Russian and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 18:3).

2022 was also the year when I committed myself to a long reading project – the 13 volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – thanks to the #PilgrimageTogether reading group on Twitter led by Kim McNeill and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books. It was both a challenging and rewarding project (I plan to read the last three novels this month) and I’ve written about the first ten throughout my monthly posts this year but I want to highlight that the fourth novel The Tunnel was to me the best so far.

Coming back to this list though, it is a mix of 20th century literature, contemporary fiction, translated literature, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2022, in the order in which they appear in the picture below (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE GREENGAGE SUMMER by Rumer Godden

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky). Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are. But all their best laid plans go awry when the mother falls ill. Thus, once at the hotel, the children are largely left to their own devices and latch on to the mysterious Elliott who takes them under his wing much to the chagrin of his lover and the owner of the hotel, Mademoiselle Zizi. This is a beautiful book with evocative descriptions of a languid French summer. Despite the joys of new experiences, there are darker currents with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings.

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to leave for the seaside town of Bognor, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between the two women, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let the ways of society dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is an immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. 

THE ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. from Spanish by Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to the book. Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

GENTLEMAN OVERBOARD by Herbert Clyde Lewis

The first of the Boiler House Press titles (from the Recovered Books imprint) that made this list Gentleman Overboard is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. But when the hours slip by and the Arabella disappears from the horizon, Standish is forced to confront the possibility that he is likely to die. It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic.

FOSTER by Claire Keegan

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

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change, she becomes absorbed in the Kinsella household’s daily routine and begins to blossom under their care. This book is a mini marvel and one of its greatest strengths is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, where Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Another excellent Recovered Books title, Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable. Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (tr. from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop. The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly signaling she’s in labour. Takiko is hell bent on going to the hospital by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time dealing with her dismal family circumstances.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town. The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

Taylor is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved. This is one of her finest books, simply top-tier Taylor.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing. Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. We then meet Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village, about the same age as Evelyn. To Imogen, Blanche is an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude. Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. from Danish by Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness is a biting, scalpel-sharp collection of stories with its devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style.

Some examples – In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. In the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

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.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. from Russian by Robert Chandler)

A wonderful, wonderful book, big on ideas, set at the heart of World War Two during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

But the throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two. There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues, shifting points of view and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings. The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once 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 meticulously researched, 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.

LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness. It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2023 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

Will and Testament – Vigdis Hjorth (tr. Charlotte Barslund)

Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.

They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?

That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.

Will and Testament opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.

Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.

Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.

Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?

The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.

While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.

One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.

Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.

The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.

Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable. 

Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.

That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.

Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.  

At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.

If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.

Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.

A Month of Reading – October 2022

October was a good month of reading. I read six books – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a mini short story collection, and two books from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Oberland & Dawn’s Left Hand – for #PilgrimageTogether.  My favourites easily were the Barker and the Sherriff.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three you can click on the links.

GHOSTLY STORIES by Celia Fremlin  

My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense. There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house.

In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists.

Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages. 

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is a brilliant, immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  

The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. 

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

Once at Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND by Tove Jansson & Tuulikki Pietilä (Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal)  

Tove Jansson’s wonderful novel The Summer Book was one of my favourites last year – a lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes captured the essence of summer and the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. That book was inspired by the island of Bredskar which Tove often shared with her mother Ham and her brother Lars with his young daughter Sophia.

But for twenty-six summers, Tove and her life partner and artist Tuulikki (Tooti) would spend time on the austere, barren island of Klovharun, at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. Whereas Bredskar was a warm, welcoming island, Klovharun in contrast was stark and desolate (“the preserve of warring gulls and terns”).

Tove and Tooti were enamoured by it though, and this lovely book goes on to tell us why Tove chose this island, the process of securing a building permit, the actual building of their home, the invigorating impact of absolute solitude and how day to day living was dictated by the elemental forces of nature – the raging thunderstorms and rough seas that often easily washed away all the hard work done the previous day.

And I know exactly what she meant – that we’ve tried to make the meadow into a garden, change the thicket into a park, tame the shore with a dock, and all the other things we’ve undeniably done wrong.

Okay, we make mistakes. What of it?

Sometimes it felt like unrequited love – everything exaggerated. I had the feeling that this immoderately pampered and badly treated island was a living thing that didn’t like us, or felt sorry for us, depending on the way we behaved, or just because.

Sometimes the joy of building is discussed (“sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both”), at other times Tove describes the sheer quietness all around when only two people live on an island (“It’s possible that living with one other person makes you quiet, at least on an island. The things you say are mostly just about everyday stuff, and if the everyday goes normally you say even less”).

The physical book itself is a beautiful object, a hardback edition that comprises Tove’s diary entries interspersed with terse, spare logbook entries by Brunstrom, the builder employed by the two women to make the island more habitable. Also included are excellent sepia-toned, copperplate etchings by Tooti – a calm, soothing accompaniment to Tove’s quiet, introspective musings.  Very much recommended if you love Tove Jansson’s work, which I do!

OBERLAND (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Oberland is the ninth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle of novels, afterPointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock, Revolving Lights and The Trap.

In Oberland, in a change of scene from London, we are transported to a ski resort – the hotel Alpenstock – in Switzerland where Miriam will spend the fortnight of her holiday. Here, Miriam will encounter a new set of people in particular Harry Vereker, a charming university man and the precocious young girl Daphne.

In many ways, there’s a travelogue feel to the book as Miriam marvels at the aching beauty of the snow clad slopes, the sheer whiteness of it, the fresh air and the invigorating walks in the company of the one person she most prefers – herself. On her walks, she observes people enjoying skiing and other winter sports, and Miriam herself attempts tobogganing for the first time and greatly enjoys it (reminiscent of The Tunnel where experiences the joys of bicycling).

In the last few chapters, Miriam attends a ski fest where she witnesses Vereker display his skiing prowess. Oberland is one of the shortest books in the Pilgrimage series, its highlight being the gorgeous descriptions of nature and the mountains that Richardson revels in, in particular her penchant for depicting the dazzling play of light on Miriam’s immediate surroundings.

The mountains were still wan against a cold sky, whitening the morning twilight with their snow.

How long to wait, with sleep gone that left no borderland of drowsiness, until the coming of their gold?

And in a moment she had seen forever the ruby gleaming impossibly from the topmost peak: stillness of joy held still for the breathless watching of the dark ruby, set suddenly like a signal upon the desolate high crag.

It could not last, would soon be plain sunlight.

DAWN’S LEFT HAND (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Dawn’s Left Hand is the tenth installment in the Pilgrimage series and immediately follows from Oberland above, where we find Miriam back in London.

After her failed experiment of sharing a room with Selina Holland at Flaxman Court, Miriam goes back to having her own lodgings again at Mrs Bailey’s. This is a book that sees Miriam get a marriage proposal, receive the attentions of a woman, and having sex for the first time. The marriage proposal comes from Dr Densley, who Miriam first meets in The Tunnel when treating the dubious Eleanor Dear for consumption. Miriam learns of Eleanor’s death from Dr Densley who later proposes to her, but Miriam is silent and the matter ends there.

At her club, Miriam also meets the beautiful, ethereal Amabel who is enamoured by Miriam and leaves a message on the mirror saying “I love you” during Miriam’s final days at Flaxman Court making her wonder how Amabel managed that feat with Selina around. Miriam is aware of Amabel’s deep feelings for her but as usual is not ready for a long commitment that would entail a loss of personal freedom.

Amabel. But Amabel will move on. And remain with me forever, a test, presiding over my life with others. She stands permanently in my view of life, embodying the changes she has made, the doors she has opened, the vitality she has added to my imagination of every kind of person on earth. And stands, too, insisting on marking the boundary, where she falls short and is in awe of me: of my ‘wisdom’ and, strangely, the strangest of all her ascriptions, of my ‘gift of speech.”

We know that in real life, Richardson had a brief affair with HG Wells (Hypo Wilson is modeled on him), which resulted in pregnancy and miscarriage. In the last chapter of Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam and Hypo make love but in true characteristic Richardson style it is so obliquely described that it would be easy to miss it.

It was uncanny, but more absorbing than the unwelcome adventure of her body, to be thus hovering outside and above it in a darkness that obliterated the room and was too vast to be contained by it. An immense, fathomless black darkness through which, after an instant’s sudden descent into her clenched and rigid form, she was now travelling alone on and on, without thought or memory or any emotion save the strangeness of this journeying.

With the year drawing to a close, I enter the last phase of the Pilgrimage series, with 3 of the 13 books left to read.  

That’s it for October. November has begun on a terrific note; during a much needed beach holiday, I managed to read two excellent books – Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses and Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You. I am also reading Emeric Pressburger’s novel The Glass Pearls, a Faber Editions reissue, and the graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton and both so far have been excellent.