What Happened To You? by Bruce D. Perry, Oprah Winfrey

Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Conversations on trauma, resilience and healingThis was a compelling read in an interesting, dynamic format, a book length conversation between child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry and the well known broadcaster, philanthropist and show host, Oprah Winfrey.

He brings his knowledge and experience of working with children and she brings not just her own childhood experiences but the learning from thousands of interviews with people who’ve been through trauma and come through it to heal.

The experiences of the first two months of life have a disproportionately important impact on your long-term health and development.

I read it as part of background research into pre-verbal trauma. There wasn’t much on that subject specifically, but the general discussion itself was informative, as were the many case studies and ongoing insights into healing.

There are parts of our brain that are very, very sensitive to nonverbal relational cues. And in our society, this is an underappreciated aspect of the way human beings work. We tend to be a very verbal society – written and spoken words are important – but the majority of communication is actually nonverbal.

It seemed to be more about understanding the effect of what has happened, making that connection between childhood events and a person’s future behaviour and ways of perceiving the world, than about how people heal, although the clues are there. Given how common these experiences are, it’s good that such an accessible book is available to the general reading public.

Regulation, relationship, and reward

The brain is a meaning-making machine, always trying to make sense of the world.

community healing trauma resilience

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A person’s capacity to connect, to be regulating and regulated, to reward and be rewarded, is the glue that keeps families and communities together. Regulation is about being in balance, and rhythm is one of the key ways to regulate. Disassociation is one the self-regulating mechanisms, one that can be developed into a strength.

All life is rhythmic. The rhythms of the natural world are embedded in our biological systems.

The beginning chapters are a little scientific as Perry introduces the parts of the brain that regulate us and then how these events cause disregulation.

Sequential processing means that the most primitive, reactive part of our brain is the first part to interpret and act on the information coming from our senses. Bottom line: Our brain is organised to act and feel before we think. The developing infant acts and feels, and these actions and feelings help organise how they will begin to think.

Healing isn’t focused so much on therapy as it is on the dozens of potential therapeutic moments available each day, that counterbalance the effect.

When you have friends, family and other healthy people in your life, you have a natural healing environment. We heal best in community.

indigenous maori community healing

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I really enjoyed the references to indigenous thinking on the subject, particularly because Bruce Perry referenced his visit to Nez Zealand where he spent time with Maori elders and healers.

Their way of healing started with a refusal to categorise and to see the “whole”, so instead of focusing on specific problems like addiction, violence etc they talk about connection and community. Its the collective response that is important not the isolated, individual approach western civilisation tends to foster.

Our ancestors recognised the importance of connectedness and the toxicity of exclusion. The history of the ‘civilized’ world, on the other hand, is filled with policies and practices that favoured disconnection and marginalisation – that destroyed family, community and culture.

The concept is to move from asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ in order to understand the effect of trauma, whether it is something known or remembered or not. The brain adapts and is shaped by those experiences, wiring us for certain responses whether they seem logical or not.

We’re just saying this is the way you’re organised and it’s absolutely predictable based upon what happened to you. Then we help them understand that the brain is malleable.

Ultimately, it can create strength. Adversity, challenges, disappointment, loss, trauma – all can contribute to the capacity to develop empathy, and wisdom. They can be perceived as gifts, what we do with them will differ from one person to the other.

Everything that has happened to you was also happening for you. And all that time, in all of those moments, you were building strength.
Strength times strength times strength equals power.
What happened to you can be your power.

Heart shape Green Plant Trauma resilience

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The Statement by Brian Moore (1995)

Political thriller set in France war crimesMuch like his final novel The Magician’s Wife (1997) this is another of Brian Moore’s novels, that is more than just a political thriller, it is a work of historical fiction that brings together both his lifetime pursuit for challenging the Catholic Church  (here, for harbouring a fugitive war criminal) and his curiosity for elements of a country’s history that often go undetected by the world at large.

The Magician’s Wife came about, after the random spotting of a historical fact in the notes of  The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand that mentioned a famous French magician sent on a mission to Algeria by Napoleon II to advance the cause of mal-intended colonial interests, he was to perform to locals to undermine their faith in their marabout (mystical men).

A Chapter in France’s Dark History

Brian Moore 1995 novel to film Tilda Swinton

In The Statement, published in 1995, he writes a story of Pierre Brossard, a French fugitive on the run, pursued by an unknown group of assassins and the gendarmerie, sheltered by various monasteries and clergy. Having previously been condemned to death in absentia by French courts for the murder of 14 Jews during the war, he has been in hiding for over 40 years.

The book felt made for its script conversion, which Moore no doubt had in mind, although its dialogue often reads more like rants against the secretive and hypocritical nature of his religious characters, rather than using the opportunity for his fugitive to be confronted by those who have taken issue with his relative freedom.

While the story itself races through the south of France, from Salon de Provence, through Aix to Nice and Villefranche, (made into a film in 2004 featuring Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton); it is the underlying history that had me ‘stop and start’ reading, looking up the many references he uses or alludes to.

Like the use of the word milice (his protagonist the fictional Brossard, was milice) a reference he does not translate from the French, a word I was not familiar with, but one that lead me down a labyrinth of links related to the military history of France during World War II. At the end of the war, in August 1944 a court martial was held against 98 milice francaise of whom 76 were condemned to death by firing squad. They rest in unmarked graves at Le Grand Bornand.

The First Frenchman Ever Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity

Crime contre l'humanite Brian MooreIn real life, Paul Tourvier (1915-1996),a former officer of Vichy France, was a wanted war criminal condemned in absentia for treason and collusion with the Nazis in September 1946 and given the death sentence. Though arrested in 1947 for armed robbery he escaped and evaded capture for 40 years.

In 1966 his death sentence could no longer be upheld due to the statute of limitation and lawyers applied for a pardon. He was given this controversial pardon in 1971 by President Georges Pompidou, but remained in hiding while a new effort was made to charge him with crimes against humanity. Eventually captured, tried and convicted to a life sentence in 1994, he died two years later in prison at the age of 81.

One of the assasins in the novel, referred to only as T is the son of an Algerian Harki, another buried subject that Alice Zeniter researched in her family inspired work of historical fiction l’art de perdre (The Art of Losing).

Brian Moore described his novel The Statement as “a novel with a knife in it” – it made me wonder, who exactly he had the knife out for. Openly referring to that dark, suppressed element of French history and war crimes perpetrated by Vichy France, it pits the French police as pro-Pétain (Chief of State, Vichy France) against The gendarmerie, sympathetic to the Resistance and De Gaulle, adding in hypocritical, anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church in France. But a quick glimpse into his own family history, reveals that it was more than just the Church he took issue with.

Moore’s Personal Vendetta

Living in the south of France, I noticed detail that indicated knowledge and some that was skewed, like the 13100 postcode for Salon de Provence, when it is the postcode for Aix en Provence; it made me go back and look at when it was that Moore spent time in France that gave him both that intimate knowledge and personal interest in the history, to be still writing about it just five years before his death in 1999. So, I digress.

Northern Ireland TroublesMoore was born in Belfast in August 1921, shortly after the partition of Ireland that created the southern Free State, eventually the Republic of Ireland. His parents and childhood were traditional middle class and his early years relatively protected from the sectarian conflict violence that often erupted around them, despite being a member of the Catholic minority.

Setbacks in adolescence led to his open rejection of the Church and the stifling, provincial, class -bound Belfast atmosphere, including his parents’ religious and ideological affiliations.

Celia Nichols writes in the The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (CJIS):

Some conservative Irish Catholics, Dr Moore among them, initially supported Hitler’s march across Europe as a protest against the British Empire. Yet Brian Moore, in his independent pursuit of intellectual stimulation joined socialist youth groups, read modern authors such as James Joyce and W.H. Auden, and cultivated interests detached from the predominant Catholic ethos he had been subjected to both at school and at home.

He joined the war effort in 1939 and his knowledge of French had him willingly posted to North Africa and then to posts in Naples, the Cote d’Azur and Paris as the Allied forces advanced. These early travels and the people of many nationalities he would have encountered, contributed to his first hand knowledge, unique perspective, continued curiosity and audacious daring, in terms of the subjects he was willing to explore and confront through his ficiton.

Dedicated to “those who stayed”, “those who left” and “all those who were lost”

Like the young boy and his family, in the excellent film Belfast, Brian Moore became one of those who left, but the effect of his upbringing meant that Belfast was somehow always present, no matter what the subject of his novels.

French Presidential Elections 2022

French Presidential elections 2022

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It’s an interesting and strange tale to be reading this, as France prepares to elect a new President in the coming months, with first round voting on April 10 and the final vote on April 24, 2022 at a time when politics has become more divisive than ever.

I’m left pondering Moore’s own prosaic statement:

“I don’t think novels do change the world.”

They may not change the world, but they can lead us to look further than storytelling to understand the real life tales they are inspired by, that might serve as a warning.

If the true writer is an outsider, few have perfected this role as subtly as Brian Moore, whose finest work was always marked by his surest personal qualities: intelligence, curiosity and an abiding sense of justice. – extract from an article by Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

The Passenger – Ireland

For Explorers of the World

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsHuginn and Muninn are two ravens from Norse mythology. Sent out by Odin at dawn each day, they return at night to perch on the god’s shoulders, whispering to him whatever knowledge and wisdom they have gathered from every corner of the world. Like Huginn and Muninn The Passenger travels far and wide to bring back the best writing from the countries it visits.

I’ve been reading this over the past week and only meant to read a couple more essays today, but they were so interesting, I kept going and finished it.

Featuring long form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage and visual narratives, it takes readers beyond the familiar stereotypes to portray a country’s shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, its pleasures and its pain. It was published in the UK by Europa Editions on March 17.

Some Numbers About Ireland

Essays About Ireland and the IrishPopulation (the island of Ireland) : 6.9 million (the highest since 1851)

Population (the Republic of Ireland) : 5.01 million

People Who Speak Irish at Home : 83,000

People Who Speak Polish at Home : 120,000

Castles or castle ruins : 30,000

Eurovision Song contest wins : 7 (more than any other country)

Nobel Prizes in Literature : 4

W.B. Yeats (1923),

George Bernard Shaw (1925)

Samuel Beckett (1969)

Seamus Heaney (1995)

11 Essays

The Mass is Ended by Catherine Dunne and Caelainn Hogan

A dual narrative essay written by two women writers from different generations, talking about growing up in Ireland as a woman, how it has begun to transform from an insular, conservative society under the repressive influence of the Catholic Church and how it continued to negatively impact women’s lives long after other countries began addressing such issues. The women discuss the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and the culture of silence.

Bogland by William Atkins

A fascinating and insightful article about the natural phenomena of the midland area of Ireland, covered in peatlands, referred to locally as bogs. Initially seen as undesirable and an embarrassment, they then became a source of revenue, economic growth and jobs, not to mention local fuel. Environmentally controversial like many fuel extraction processes, the industry is now in decline and being phased out. The bogs have been found to contain human remains from the Iron Age dating back to between 470 BC.

An Ocean of Wisdom by Manchan Magnan

An Ocean of Wisdom

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Fascinated by the Irish language and its connection to fishing and the sea, we learn how the decline of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the language. Magnan travelled to the three areas of Gaeltachtai (Irish speaking) to discover locals words and phrases that expressed aspects of the sea, weather and coastal life, linguistic nuances that described a way of life that is disappearing (due to the impact of foreign fishing trawlers) and with it, a form of expression and being.

Like other old tongues, the Irish language has unique ways of expressing things – one example of which is that Irish regards the unseen world as being just as real as the seen, and this is evident in many ofthe phrases, metaphors and colloquial expressions that make up daily speech. So the word ceantar, for instance, means place, region or locality, while alltar is its opposite, the other realm, the netherworld. They exist simultaneously in all places at all times.

Our physical bodies occupy the ceantar, but our minds can easily slip into the alltar. Only a thin veil separates the two realms, and there were always those who could pass from one to the other, as is demonstrated by the word púicín, which refers to a supernatural covering that allows otherworldly beings to appear unseen in this reality.

The efforts to revive and reconnect to the language and the growing awareness of the importance language is to maintaining connection to a culture is encouraging. Losing language is to lose meaning and connection, reclaiming it might well contribute to the country’s healing process.

Talismans by Sara Baume

Sara Baume is know for her two fiction novels, a third Seven Steeples due out in Apr ’22, however if you’ve read her excellent work of nonfiction Handiwork, you’ll know she is a visual artist and loves crafting things, using her hands, sculpting or making things from different materials and they always have a theme.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirdsIn Handiwork, she was sculpting birds, but here she writes about the Irish cottage, its evolution and the rise of the Irish villas that were much despised for a period of time. As she spends months creating objects that represent small scale versions of these houses, she reflects on the way Ireland’s built environment has changed.

The idea was to draw a contrast between the grandiosity of the monster mansions and my choice of coarse, everyday materials – the intention being to invent an updated and deeply cynical souvenir.

She visits a reconstructed Irish cottage with Marion McGarry, author of The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017), who recounts :

‘the fire was both physically and socially situated in the centre of the house’. Whereas European families routinely gathered around the kitchen table, the Irish would push all of their furniture back against the walls to surround the light and heat of the hearth.

Everything that Falls Must Also Rise – by Colum McCann

The New York based Irish writer reflects on the choice he and many others made to emigrate, what it’s like to return, to become an outsider and be rooted elsewhere, yet still refer to it as home. Full of nostalgia, this one almost feels out of place in the collection, and the enlarged font size stands out almost as a clue to the demographic its likely to appeal to.

At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast by Mark Devenport

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland writes about a region hanging in the balance between two Unions, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned. A century of Northern Ireland, how attitudes and loyalties are evolving and changing with the generations and neighbouring affiliations.

Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies (originally published in 2016) by Lyra McKee

Ceasefire suicides Northern Ireland

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An essay written by the journalist Lyra McKee, who investigated the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

This was a fascinating read, because it ties in with Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places and when I began to read Lyra’s essay and her questions, I could tell what was coming, because if you’ve read Thin Places and imagined how many other young people have been exposed to what she had been (including being told “you lot had it much easier than our generation” by their parents) and the subsequent suppression of their feelings/emotions, it’s not surprising that there is a significant proportion of the population, particularly in the towns of Belfast and Derry that have suffered the delayed effects of PTSD, without even knowing it.

Her investigation looks at the cause, uncovers existing research and also learns about how trauma survivors pass their behaviours and certain genes (when parental trauma has been experienced prior to conception) to children.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.

Sadly, Lyra McKee was murdered in 2019.

What I Learned On My Trip to Westeros by Mark O’Connell

I guess there had to be the one that references The Game of Thrones, little more than a guided tour of the locations, an attempt to make a connection between the fantasy of the land imagined by George R.R. Martin (inspired by 15th century civil wars) and the more recent history and reality of a divided land.

Unfortunately, the lens through which he views things around him obscures the actual landscape and barely disguises his disdain for the local guides, while going off on a tangent about a novel relating to the philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations of the Argentinian author Borges.

Citizens’ Assemblies: Experiments in Democracy by Ursula Barry

An excellent and insightful look into the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies, an invention and intervention by common people to facilitate decision making on important issues that have gone unresolved by politicians for far too long.

This was brilliant, I wasn’t aware that it was these assemblies that had been behind some of the most significant changes and reforms in Ireland’s constitution, and a model that has and is being used elsewhere in Europe, when the population begins to protest and govt wants to listen but is unable to act, here is another way that is even more democratic perhaps, than elected officials, who get tied up with multiple agendas and lose sight of the common citizen, especially those adversely affected by outdated policies and inhumane practices.

The final two essays were about one man’s interest in Irish music (from a perspective of a lifetime living in England) and rugby, neither of which particularly interested me enough to write about here!

Overall, an excellent exploration of the life and times of modern Ireland. Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2022

From a longlist of 79 novels, including 30 novels in translation, the committee has shortlisted six novels. These novels were all nominated by libraries around the world. Celebrating 27 years, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner.

The list includes two novels in translation and a debut novelist, with authors from France, Ireland, Canada (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, Alderville First Nation), New Zealand and Nigeria.

Below are the shortlisted titles with judges comments and the two I have read linked to my reviews:

Dublin Literary Award shortlist 2022
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (New Zealander) Published by Europa Editions
Nominated by Auckland Libraries, New Zealand and Dunedin Public Libraries, New Zealand.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel Germany – New Zealander Catherine Chidgey opens a new chapter of Holocaust literature as she tells the story of Greta Hahn, who is the wife of a concentration camp manager and doesn’t know – then doesn’t want to know – what goes on behind the fence.  When her Nazi husband becomes convinced that only a prisoner can save Greta from dying of cancer, Dr. Weber enters her parallel universe at the edge of the camp.  The prisoner-doctor treats Greta because he hopes it will help his Jewish wife and their young daughter who have been forcibly separated from him and sent further East.  Slowly he bursts Greta’s bubble of oblivion and she is forced to confront the horror to which she has been an accomplice.

Chidgey expertly choreographs this desperate dance of death as the Allied liberating army comes closer and closer, and surviving long enough to be freed becomes the ultimate challenge. Remote Sympathy, harrowing but ultimately hopeful, is a passionate warning against the dangers of our wilful ignorance in the face of oppression which is, sadly, of urgent relevance today, and every day.

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (French) Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis  Published by Pushkin Press Nominated by Bibliothèque de Reims, France

At Night All Blood is BlackAt Night All Blood is Black is a carefully crafted, heart-wrenching, passionate, and engaging story about the insanity of war and its devastating toll on humanity. Told from the perspective of Alfa Ndiaye, a 20-year-old Senegalese who, like his friend, Mademba Diop and many other young West Africans were conscripted by European imperial powers – in this case, France – to fight in World War I. The novel raises fresh concerns about the issues of war, humanity, identity, sexuality, racism, violence, and colonialism as it explores strong emotions like love, apathy, fear, and indignation towards war.  The plot hinges around the gruesome death in battle of Mademba, and Ndiaye’s refusal to carry out the “mercy killing” for his friend.  From that point onward, Ndiaye begins to spiral towards insanity, consciously becoming the “dämme”, “demon” or “savage” his European trench-mates think him to be.

Alternately horrific and lyrical, the novel moves back and forth between the Senegalese village of Ndiaye’s youth and the brutal chaos of the trenches.  For such a slim book, Diop’s novel manages to attain a kind of epic scale, sweeping back and forth between Africa and Europe, between world-historical events and village life.  Holding all of this together is the narrative voice of Ndiaye.  Diop combines traditional African tropes with modern literary devices, giving the novel a rhythmic quality, as Ndiaye repeats phrases like “God’s truth”, “more-than-brother”, “I swear to you”, “I know, I understand”, whispering gently in our ears as he carries us into the dark heart of twentieth-century history.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (Nigerian) Published by Faber & Faber
Nominated by Helsinki City Library, Finland

Akwaeke Emezi trans literatureAkwaeke Emezi’s novel opens with a chapter of only one sentence: “They burned down the market on the day Vivek Oji died.”  From that first sentence, we are immersed in contemporary Nigeria in all of its complexity, where tight family and community bonds are woven into the submerged stories of gay, bisexual and transgender people, and where groups such as the ‘Nigerwives’ (foreign-born wives of Nigerian men) form one of the cultures that make up the mosaic of Nigerian society.  Emezi’s novel manages to balance an unflinching realism with something of the quality of a folktale or a myth.  On one level, this is a very directly told story of two people coming of age and grappling with sexualities that struggle to find expression.

As readers, we encounter these lives almost like “a stack of photographs” being handed around at a wake (to use an image from the novel).  At the same time, The Death of Vivek Oji is shot through with mythic elements.  Oji is born on the day of their grandmother’s death, and there is a sense in which her spirit inhabits the person they will become.  The burning market foretold in that opening line is both an entirely credible part of the novel’s world, and a kind of symbolic crucible, out of which a new identity is born.  “I was born and I died”, Oji tells us at the novel’s end.  “I will come back.”

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish) Published by John Murray
Nominated by Cork City Libraries, Ireland

Dublin literary award shortlist 2022Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is set in Cork. Its curator protagonist Nessa , is organizing a retrospective of the work of a Scottish-born sculptor, Robert Locke. Locke established himself in West Cork, at the end of the 1960s, after years of wandering. Locke’s studio and his sculpture ‘Venus at the Hotel Negresco’, known colloquially as ‘The Chalk Sculpture’ will become a permanent exhibit in the museum where Nessa is employed. Nessa has worked long and hard for this event and has nurtured a relationship with Locke’s widow Eleanor and daughter Loretta. Women attribute healing powers to the statue, fetishizing it as a cure for infertility. At a public lecture on Locke’s work, another woman, Melanie Doerr, comes forward and tells Nessa that she was the model for the monumental piece, claiming that Locke spent a period of time with her in 1972. These are lost months in Locke’s biography, when Locke disappeared without trace, turning up later, like an unkempt beggar, on Eleanor’s doorstep offering neither explanation nor apology. While Nessa’s professional life revolves around the mystery of Locke’s disappearance and the veracity of Melanie Doerr’s claims, Nessa’s own personal life is in turmoil. She struggles with the aftermath of her husband’s affair, their threadbare finances, and their teenage daughter’s behavioural problems.

McLaughlin creates a compelling portrait of a life spent in pursuit of art and happiness. She summons up contemporary Cork, the universality of marital woes, and the everyday frustrations of middle-age in elegantly chiseled prose.

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg)
Published by House of Anansi Nominated by Ottawa Public Library, Canada

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2021– This book is literary art. It’s charming, witty, insightful and unforgettable. The way Simpson writes is completely unique. The love and honour about which she writes among Anishinaabeg (an indigenous people in Canada) and the land is both poetic and lyrical.  Narrators include Mashkawaji (they/them), who lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain.

The novel unfolds as a constant conversation and interaction between the seven selves that make up Mashkawaji. Simpson skilfully brings each of the characters to life on the page so they feel real and not just metaphorical.  Ultimately, the novel provides powerful insight into how Indigenous people have tried to sustain their identity and their old traditions as they navigate living in the modern world. This is a unique, charming and lyrical novel that combines poetry song and prose.

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (French)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne Published by Picador, Pan Macmillan
Nominated by Bibliothèque publique d’information, Paris, France

The Art of LOsing Alice Zeniter – Deriving its title from the piercing first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s arch poem “One Art”, The Art of Losing follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day—as they progressively lose, in the fog of conflict and post-colonial transition, their country, their roots, and their innocence. The narrative wings its way from the contested highlands of Northern Algeria to a French refugee camp, to the streets of Paris and back, borne forward by a cast of nuanced characters: from the patriarch Ali to his granddaughter Naïma, heir to a new digital age in which old prejudices and presumptions persist. Each is profoundly human in their passions, griefs, vanities, contradictions and silences. The family’s journey unspools in a deft weave of fiction and research, as the narrator fills in with compassion and imagination what the clan’s muteness about the past have refused to yield.

Symphonic in historical and emotional scope, the novel is by turns infuriating, unflinching, wry, recalcitrant, sensual, aporetic, courageous. It offers insights at every scale, from the national and the individual, about the fluid nature of identity; how our relations to place and to each other situate and perhaps free us. Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves.

* * * * *

The winner will be announced on Thursday 19th May during the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs from the 19th to the 29th May 2022.

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Northern Irish Literature nonfiction memoir troublThin Places is something of an enigma, when I bought it, I thought it was in the nature writing genre, the inside cover calls it a mix of memoir, history and nature writing – such a simplistic description of the reading experience, which for me was something else.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.

This book is a kind of cathartic experience of being inside the experience of someone who has experienced trauma, who has yet to awaken from its implications, or be conscious of its effect – but who by the end will by necessity awaken to it, because it can no longer be contained inside the mind, the body and for the good of the soul, it must be expressed, broken down, if there is to be any change of coming out the other side.

Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures.

So the first part of the book I can only describe as “being in the fog”. We know Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the height of the troubles, that her parents were of mixed heritage, a Protestant father and Catholic mother;  the family existed in the oftentime dangerous in-between, safe in neither space or only temporarily, always moving, never truly belonging.

We have a somewhat difficult relationship with the word ‘tradition’ in Ireland, particularly in the North. The way that religion has latched itself onto the politics of this land has left many people with no desire to look at the imagery of their ancestors; the story of their past. We have lost, broken, murdered, burned, stolen, hidden and undone – all in the false name of tradition. Lives, places and stories have been ripped out by their roots because ‘that’s how it has always been’. I wonder, I wonder so very much these days, what wealth of imagery and meaning was lost when we became so focused on our differences here, that we buried the things that had once tied us together, the things that might still know a way through, for us all.

Though we are told this, the uninitiated reader doesn’t really understand what that means, how it actually manifests on the human level, on a day to day basis – until she arrives at the point where she realises, she needs to confront the reality of the things that happened – because she is losing it – and finding it harder and harder to function in the bubble of denial that allows her to go about her day, to work, to live.

The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deeply I try to bury it. So many different things – situations, times of year, people – made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it – any of it – stop.

Derry River Foyle Ireland

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Only after finishing Part 1 Blood and Bone did I comprehend what I was reading, a woman’s life from childhood up to the age of 28 striving to not give in to the effects of trauma, in the opening chapters, she alludes to those things, though is unable to write directly about them, until realising the nightmares will never stop if she doesn’t, the numbing eventually worse than the pain.

And so she begins to share the events. And it’s tough to read, to absorb as we imagine the magnitude of the effect these events must have had on a child, on an adolescent, a young adult. But what courage, to make that decision, to visit that dark place, to express those thoughts, recount those events, relive the disappointments, feel again the sense of abandonment, to trust that writing about it might bring one towards healing.

While there are those moments of how nature and the many metaphors and symbolism of it kept her sane, this is more about the nature of mind and the necessity of finding and/or making meaning in navigating the troubles of life, in order to overcome past hurts, reconcile traumatic events and find a way to live again, to believe in hope, to elevate one’s self-worth and be able to function in a relationship.

thin places between worlds trauma spiritual healing

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It is a tough and unrelenting read, that at times I needed to take a break from, but it is one that we as readers are privileged to gain insight from, because Kerri ni Dochartaigh could very easily not be here, and yet she is – and I like to believe that in part that is because the sharing of her experience and path to healing are an important part of her soul’s purpose in this life.

This extraordinary book is part of her life’s work, she has found a way to articulate to the many, the terrible destructive effect of divisiveness , prejudice and intolerance on young people, the effect of not feeling safe during childhood and adolescence and the difficulty of becoming something other than what you knew growing up – of learning to trust, to love, of connecting to the natural environment, learning a near lost language that connects the Irish to their environment and dwelling in just being.

Naming things, in the language that should always have been offered to you, is a way to sculpt loss. A way to protect that which we still have.

Hard going at times, but extraordinary, a beating, bleeding heart, ripped open to heal.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Author

Born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties.

She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She has also written for the Guardian, BBC, Winter Papers. Thin Places was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.

I Will Die In A Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Many are reading literature from or about Ukraine at the moment, whether it is history, news reports, fiction or other. Below are a book and a diary I’m reading to both stay in touch and understand.

A Daily Reflection from A Woman in Kyiv

Ukranian author Yevgenia Belorusets lives in Kyiv, each day she writes from her neighbourhood, she goes out and meets people, takes a few pictures. You can read her very moving, human interest diary here.

Today she noticed cosy lights on in a café that has been closed since the beginning of the war:

Ukraine Coffee

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I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.

It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.

The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone.

I Will Die In A Foreign Country, A Novel

Ukraine historical fictionI thought this was an excellent and exceptional novel, that I chose to read because it is too distressing and overwhelming to be bombarded with only the terrible news that is flooding us at the moment.

Rather than look away, here is a novel, whose intention is to pay homage to those who wish to preserve a culture, to protect their homes, to help the wounded, to ease the suffering of the dying, to sing their songs and tell their stories.

Kalani Pickhart is American, passionate about Ukranian history and culture and began to write this story in 2016, in the aftermath of the American elections.

In an interview with New Lines’ Lydia Wilson, Pickhart talks about her motivation and inspiration for writing this novel, which has come to the world at a time when many are trying to understand how these terrible patterns continue to repeat, and searching for some hope in a humanity that appears at times to have gone mad.

Ukraine 2013 – 2014

The novel is set in late 2013, early 2014 and on the opening page, there is a map of Ukraine and a timeline of events at Euromaidan (the site of mass protest), from November 21, 2013 the day the 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precipitating protests, until late 2014 when the last barriacades and tents were removed from the city of Kyiv.

The novel is about four fictional characters, whose paths cross during this time, the story goes back and forth in time. The text is interspersed with other voices, most chapter headings indicating the place, the date, the voice or a subject, pieces that connect the narrative. With its relatively concise chapters, the narrative never overwhelms, like pieces of a jigsaw, as the story evolves and events unfold, geography is traversed, people respond to what confronts them, understanding broadens, a picture emerges.

Kobzari, Singing

Kobzari musicians Kalani PIckhartThe first lines of the prologue are the collective voice of the Kobzari, whose story of persecution isn’t told until later in the book; like a Greek chorus, they recount aspects of Ukranina history, culture and tradition through the lyrics of song, ensuring a language, a culture and events can be carried forward to future generations.

Where does it begin? Ah, ah. Depends on who you ask…

It could begin with Scythians and Cimmerians, Slavs and the Rus’. Queen Olha. Vladmyr the Great. Yaroslav the Wise.

The Kobzari sing of events that will never be forgotten, like the church bells at St. Michael’s that rang in December 2013, something the church has only done once before: 800 years ago, against the Mongols. This collective voice slips into the narrative seamlessly, drip feeding the reader with an historical context.

Katya, the American Doctor

I Will Die in a Foreign Land Kalani Pickhart Literature UkraineKatya is a Boston based, American doctor, working with the wounded inside a temporary medical clinic at St Michaels monastery. She is an outsider, drawn to the country because she was orphaned there, but grew up in America with no connection to her birth country. Hers, like the author, is an outside perspective, one that wants to know, to connect, to understand.

She has temporarily removed herself from having to face a broken marriage in the aftermath of the death of her son.

Ekaterina, her mother and father named her when they took her home from the orphanage. Ekaterina the Great. Looking over Kyiv, Katya feels neither great nor pure. Her son is dead, her marriage is dead, and her birthplace is on fire.

The Captain

One of Katya’s patients is a man they refer to as Captain, only known to people because he would play an outdoor piano every day on the street during the protests. Katya finds a telephone number and a cassette in his pocket. The Captain’s story is narrated through the playing of an audio tape, created for his daughter Anna. He too is an outsider, a former officer, a man whose loyalties have been dictated to him, who is given little choice. He shares his story in an old oral tradition.

My mother was the one with the gift. She had a soft voice that warbled like a bird, but it was my father who wanted us to learn music. We learned the arts, my father said, to be civilized people because the world was at times a most uncivilized place. I often forgot he survived the war.

The Violence of Spring

One of the  (true) stories the Captain tells is of the composer Stravinsky’s controversial composition The Rite of Spring. He was invited by the Director of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to collaborate in a ballet. The work was so modern, it attracted a youthful audience and a riot broke out inside the theatre as the traditionalist patrons in the crowd began hurling insults, clashing with youth.

In his notes, Stravinsky said it is an episodic ballet without a cohesive beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the episodes are bound by one unifying thread: the mystery and the great surge of the power of Spring.

It is a violent ballet, a violent composition, taking place in pagan Russia. During the performance in 1913, the choreographer, Nijinsky, before he went mad, had the dancers move in contorted, disfigured ways. It was obscene, the audience thought – an abomination of the arts, of theatre, of ballet.

Intrigued, I looked this up, it was one of the most notorious ballet performances of the 20th century, shattering the conventions of both classical music and dance. Here is France Musique’s excellent explanation (3 mins).

Micha, Ukranian Engineer

Micha is a Ukranian protest, helping out, an engineer, originally from Chernobyl, who worked in the mines. He was married to his childhood friend Vera, who succumbed to sickness.

The Exclusion Zone

His home is near where Katya was born, they return to visit his mother, to reconnect with a lost part of her, before her return.

I didn’t think people could live there anymore, but I heard stories about some old women whose husbands died, the samosely. I tried to convince my mother not to return. She said it was the only place she ever felt at home. A couple hundred babushkas had returned and she went with them. Women in their seventies, eighties having survived Stalin, genocide.

Slava, Ukranian Protestor

Slava and Micha are friends, she is from Odessa, a place she ran from after what happened to her there, something that fuels her determination. Slava meets a journalist Dascha, their relationship puts them both at risk.

You said you once protested with FEMEN – that is also very brave, I feel we have similar views, that you’re accepting of me.

Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.

Lest We Forget

As I neared the end of the book, on page 268, I read six pages of names that traverse the globe in culture, nationality, language, showing just how interconnected the world today is. It was the Passenger and Crew Manifest read aloud at trial for the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day I read those names, I read this article indicating that today Australia and the Netherlands  launched legal proceedings against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

Loss, when it occurs, has memory stronger than the mind, stronger than visual recollection patterned in the brain. It’s something the flesh knows, the muscles know, like a dancer reciting a step done hundreds of times, like a musician playing a song or a scale after decades without practice. It’s something the body knows, something the body is aware of while the mind adapts, responds, reacts.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading/Listening

Podcast: Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart

Article: The Atlantic – What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia by Uilleam Blacker

Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land

Kalani Pickhart, Author

Kalani Pickhart, author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. An American, she is the recipient of research fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence for Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

She currently lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is the act of love if not bold?

As the world comes apart, nothing to lose-

What is love if not a promise to go on?

The China Factory by Mary Costello

It’s week three of Reading Ireland Month and today I’m sharing thoughts on a book of short stories by Irish author Mary Costello, The China Factory.

Threads of Inspiration

Irish Literature Reading Ireland MonthI’ve heard many say good things about her debut novel Academy Street and when her most recent novel The River Capture was published, a self-confessed homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, I decided I would start at the beginning with Costello’s short stories.

I will read The River Capture later, as April is the One Dublin, One Book initiative and their chosen read for 2022 is Nora by Nuala O’Connor another book with a James Joyce connection. It is a bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora, the model for his character Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The Dublin City Libraries initiative encourages people to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.

Capturing a Voice

The China Factory Mary Costello

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The 12 stories that make up The China Factory create a strong sense of authorial voice. Highly observant, sensitive characters, steeped in melancholy. They are practiced at holding back, trying not to make a ripple in the external world, until unforseen events pitch them into interactions, all the while controlling that emotional seepage.

In the opening story, The China Factory, a young woman works a summer job in a china factory, catching a ride with a quiet man named Gus, who she is distantly related to. She works at the sponger’s station, wiping off lines the moulds leave on clay cups.

I smiled when I passed the other girls those first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.

For a while she becomes closer to the girls, listening to their gossip, they quiz her about Gus, the freak, sharing an overheard story of his childhood that disturbs her. When a wayward man appears with a gun, Gus will surprise them all, and years later the impact of that summer job, his actions and her guilt will continue to haunt her.

dreamy woman with crossed legs sitting near window

Photo by L.SummerPexels.com

In Things I See a woman lies in bed, hyper aware of her husbands movements downstairs, she relays scenes in her mind of being close to him, but even in her imagination she holds back. She fears not growing old, but of growing different.

There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist.

She works full time and her husband cares for their six year old child. Her sister Lucy who is visiting, seems more at ease in the family than she does. The things she sees, hears, picks up on, imagines, occupy her mind, creating a distance, a corner from which she has entrapped herself. A witness. Stifled. Knowing she will not change anything, though her indecision will imprint itself on her face and in her demeanour.

And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that am cornered too, and I will remain, because I can not unlove him.

Drudgery, Dignity and Denial

The stories examine aspects of everyday life and highlight the hidden selves, the thoughts beneath the actions, the things that people hide from each other, from themselves, the cover stories and meaningless conversations that patch over the cracks that might reveal the reality.

In The Patio Man, a gardener knows nothing about his employer, a young frail woman observes him from the window, she struggles to articulate what she requires from him, until the moment she must ask him to drive her to the hospital. Still nothing is ever said, just small talk that takes the mind elsewhere, far from the catastrophic event occurring in the present.

The collection opens with an epigram from Rilke’s poem Autumn:

And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too –

all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

which sets the tone and theme of falling – into and out of love, of relationships, to one’s death, in and out of the kaleidoscope of emotions, whether expressed or suppressed, no one is immune to the falling-sickness.

While the stories capture that voice particular to the author, that melancholy can wear on the reader, repeated time and again as it does, manifesting in the many losses and unfortunate events each story portrays, the quiet outer acceptance of discordant inner turmoil.

That said, I am looking forward to engaging with a longer story, hoping for the chance of redemption a novel might bring.

Mary Costello, Author

Academy Street The China Factory River CaptureMary Costello is an Irish short story writer and novelist from Galway now living in Dublin.

Her collection of short stories, The China Factory ( 2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.

Her second book and first novel, Academy Street, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel went on to win the Irish Novel of the Year Award as well as the Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel The River Capture was published in 2019.

My Year of Irish Lit – 2021 Highlights

This is the week 2 prompt for Cathy at 746books #ReadingIrelandMonth22 and although much of what I read of Irish Literature in 2021 appears in my previous post Top 5 Irish Fiction and Nonfiction Book, it was a significant year for reading Irish Literature, the second most popular country of the 28 from which I read, so there are more highlights to mention.

week 2 My Year

Cross Genre Belfast Writer in Exile, Brian Moore

Early in the year, when Cathy announced the Brian Moore ReadAlong, in collaboration with the BrianMoore100 project, I decided to join in (for reasons I discuss in the post above).

The project coincided with the centenary of his birth, aiming to critically appraise and revive scholarly and public interest in the work of this neglected and important Belfast-born writer Brian Moore (1921-1999).

There were 12 books scheduled to read throughout the year, and I managed to read the four above, covering a variety of genres, from political thriller to character driven fiction, literary romance to historical fiction. I plan to continue reading more Brian Moore in 2022 – watch this space.

Lies of Silence (1990) is the only novel set in Ireland that directly concerns political events. When simmering unrest in his personal life is upstaged as he and his wife are taken hostage, Michael Dillon is confronted with a terrible dilemma. The story highlights the pressures, the moral decisions, the yearnings to both leave and return, a country and each other. A thought provoking page turner I enjoyed very much.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) was an earlier novel, possibly one of his most well known and a popular read, one that frustrated me enormously. I felt indignant on behalf of this character (he writes from the woman’s perspective), whom the author, overbearingly caricaturises, lessening my ability to believe in either the character or the story, let alone take anything much from it. Most unpopular opinion.

I am sure back in the late 50’s, early 60’s, women friends took him to task over it, because by the time Moore penned the next book I read, also written from a female character viewpoint, the nuance he employed was like day from night, compared to poor old Judith Hearne.

The Doctor’s Wife (1976) takes place in Paris and the south of France, and is a taut, psychological portrait of a woman in her middle years, who, while alone in Paris, reflects on her life, observing others around her and wondering how things might have been different. A hedonistic young man crosses her path at precisely the moment her guard is down and this otherwise conservative wife, crosses the line of convention and upends everything.

What makes it all the more intriguing, is the less predictable nature of Moore’s path for his character, a sign of having learned something from the catastrophe of Judith Hearne.

The Magician’s Wife (1997) was the last novel Moore wrote and is indicative of the varying interests he pursued, being a story set in both France and Algeria, a work of historical fiction around certain actual events concerning Napoleon II and France’s most famous magician, called in to perform an act that might aid the imperialistic ruler in his colonial ambitions. Very interesting, both the story and the actual history.

Memoir Like Essays

I read three memoir like works of Irish nonfiction in 2021, Constellations by Sinead Gleeson, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, which I won’t say much about, as they all featured in my Top 5 Irish Nonfiction post linked above, except to say that after reading two exceptional works of Irish nonfiction in 2020, Sara Baume’s Handiwork and Doireanne Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, I was definitely on the hunt in 2021 for more of the same. Though none of these titles eclipsed those two stellar reads, they were all equally excellent.

Top Irish Fiction

Again, you can read more about these two excellent works of feature in my Top Irish Fiction Post, but in 2021 I both started the reading year and ended it with two novels by Sara Baume. 

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a novel of a man who adopts a stray dog and ends up on a reluctant road trip, while harbouring a dangerous secret – a slow moving, brilliant character portrayal and A Line Made by Walking is the story of a young woman returning to her family home to deal with a decline in her mental health, exploring how making and revising art and being in nature and around the familiar help her move on from her lapse.

In 2021, in order to read more contemporary Northern Irish fiction, I also read two books by Jan Carson, The Fire Starters and volume 1 of her Postcard Stories. I enjoyed them, but admit I was expecting something else given what I understood of the work the author was involved in facilitating the development of empathy with people, through creative writing. That work I imagined she might write, was published in late 2021 The Last Resort, set in a caravan park in Ballycastle and it’s brilliant.

Mythology

The final highlight of my Irish Lit reading year last year was Deidre Sullivan’s disruptive feminist retellings of classic fairy tales, Tangleweed and Brine, seven tangled tales of earth and six salty tales of water beautifully illustrated by Karen Vaughan.

The author takes these time worn tales and their long suffering heros and heroines and rewrites the previous unrealistic narrative, giving us alternative versions, demanding the reader to reconsider that which we so casually perpetuate and condition generations with, those fairly tale stories that have a lot to answer for.

*  *  *  *  *

This week I have been reading Irish nonfiction and reviewed Easkey Britton’s Saltwater in the Blood and I’m now reading Kerri ni Dochartaigh’s Thin Places, though I temporarily put that aside when Kalani Pickhart’s excellent I Will Die in a Foreign Land set in Ukraine (2014) landed on my doorstep.

What are you reading this week?

The International Booker Prize Longlist 2022

Libraries, Women’s Fiction, Works in Translation – The Awards

It’s book award season and yes, there are plenty of them; I do enjoy seeing what libraries around the world are nominating in The Dublin Literary Award, then there are the more commercial choices in the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced this week, the literary International Booker Prize (works translated into English), then later in the year, that blend of the two, the cross genre Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

Today the International Booker Prize announced 13 books on its long list, works of fiction translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland, originating from 11 languages and 12 countries – including Hindi for the first time.

The 13 nominated books are:

Tomb of SandTomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India), tr. Daisy Rockwell (Hindi)

An urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.
In northern India, an 80-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease of life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two. To her family’s consternation, Ma then insists on travelling to Pakistan, confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition.

Despite its serious themes, Geetanjali Shree’s light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful – and utterly original.

The Books of JacobThe Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), tr. Jennifer Croft (Polish)

A portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.

In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.

Elena KnowsElena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) tr. Frances Riddle (Spanish)

A unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.
After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.

Cursed BunnyCursed Bunny by Bora Chung (Seoul), tr. Anton Hur (Korean) (short stories)

A genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Using elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.

The translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

HeavenHeaven by Mieko Kawakami (Tokyo) tr. Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Japanese)

Told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.
Instead of putting up resistance, a boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

This deceptively simple yet profound work stands as a testament to a remarkable literary talent. Here, she asks us to question the fate of the meek in a society that favours the strong, and the lengths to which even children will go in their learnt cruelty.

ParadaisParadais by Fernanda Melchor (Puebla, Mexico) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish)

Written in a chilling torrent of prose by one of Mexico’s most thrilling new writers, Paradais explores the explosive fragility of Mexican society.
Inside a luxury housing complex, two misfit teenagers sneak around and get drunk. Franco, lonely, overweight, and addicted to porn, fantasizes about seducing his neighbour – an attractive married woman and mother.

Meanwhile Polo, the community’s gardener, dreams about quitting his gruelling job, fleeing his overbearing mother and their narco-controlled village. As each face the impossibility of getting what they think they deserve, Franco and Polo hatch a mindless and macabre scheme.

Love in the Big CityLove in the Big City by Sang Young Park (Seoul) tr. Anton Hur (Korean)

An energetic, joyful, and moving novel that depicts both the glittering night-time world of Seoul, and the bleary-eyed morning after.
Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars, where they suppress their anxieties about their love lives, families and money with rounds of soju and freezer-chilled Marlboro Reds.

In time, even Jaehee settles down, leaving Young alone to care for his ailing mother and find companionship in his relationships with a series of men – including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.

Happy Stories MostlyHappy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Jakarta, Indonesia) tr. Tiffany Tsao (Indonesian)

A powerful blend of science fiction, absurdism and alternative-historical realism that aims to destabilise the heteronormative world and expose its underlying rot.

Inspired by Simone Weil’s concept of ‘decreation’ and drawing on Batak and Christian cultural elements, the author puts queer characters in situations and plots conventionally filled by hetero characters.

In one story, a staff member is introduced to their new workplace – a department of Heaven devoted to archiving unanswered prayers. In another, a woman’s attempt to holiday in Vietnam after her gay son commits suicide turns into a nightmarish failed escape. And in a speculative-historical third, a young man is haunted by the tale of a giant living in colonial-era Sumatra.

The Book of MotherThe Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman (Parisian living in New York) tr. Leslie Camhi (French)

A remarkable debut novel of an exquisitely wrought story about a daughter’s inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother.
Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, aka ‘Maman’, smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn’t have it any other way. But when Maman is hospitalised after a third divorce and breakdown, everything changes.

As the story of Catherine’s traumatic childhood and coming of age unfolds, the pieces come together to form an indelible portrait of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.

More Than I Love My LifeMore Than I Love My Life by David Grossman (Israel) tr.Jessica Cohen (Hebrew)

Sweeping story about loving with courage that confronts our deepest held beliefs about a woman’s duty to herself – and to her children.
On a kibbutz in 2008, Gili is celebrating the 90th birthday of her grandmother Vera, the adored matriarch of a sprawling and tight-knit family. Festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Nina, who abandoned Gili as a baby. Nina’s return precipitates a journey from Israel to the island of Goli Otok, formerly part of Yugoslavia.

It was here, five decades earlier, that Vera was tortured as a political prisoner. And it is here that three women will come to terms with the terrible moral dilemma Vera faced, that permanently altered the course of their lives.

PhenotypesPhenotypes by Paulo Scott (Sao Paulo, Brazil) tr. Daniel Hahn (Portuguese)

A smart and stylish account of the bigotry lurking in hearts and institutions alike.
In this complex tale, two very different brothers of mixed black and white heritage are divided by the colour of their skin, as racial tension rises in society and a guilty secret resurfaces from their shared past.

Scott probes the old wounds of race in Brazil, and in particular the loss of a black identity independent from the history of slavery. Exploratory rather than didactic, a story of crime, street-life and regret as much as a satirical novel of ideas, Phenotypes is a seething masterpiece of rage and reconciliation.

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse (Norway) tr. Damion Searls (Norwegian)A New Name

A transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.
Asle is an ageing painter, living alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions. Written in melodious, hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

After The SunAfter the Sun by Jonas Eika (Denmark) tr. Sherilyn Hellberg (Danish)

With irrepressible urgency, Eika’s astonishing fiction juxtaposes startling beauty with grotesquery, balancing the hyper-realistic with the fantastical.
After the Sun opens portals to our newest realities, haunting the margins of a globalised world that’s both saturated with yearning and brutally transactional.

Under Cancún’s hard blue sky, a beach boy provides a canvas for tourists’ desires, seeing deep into the world’s underbelly. An enigmatic encounter in Copenhagen takes an IT consultant down a rabbit hole of speculation that proves more seductive than sex. Meanwhile, the collapse of a love triangle in London leads to a dangerous, hypnotic addiction. And in the Nevada desert, a grieving man tries to merge with an unearthly machine.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though I did just read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, so I’m intrigued by her new translation, but at close to 1000 pages, unlikely to be any time soon. I have been keen to read Elena Knows, A Charco Press (best of contemporary Latin American literature) publication for a while. Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs was a popular read, so I expect Heaven will be equally widely read.

It’s an interesting mix of names that regularly come up among those who read translations, and a new wave of more modern tales, addressing current contemporary issues.

It is always interesting to see the reactions, the reviews, and who will make the shortlist of six to be announced on 7 April. The winners (author + translator) will be announced on 26 May 2022.

Do any of these titles jump out at you with interest?

For me, it was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Hope, not a book I was aware of, but both an interesting subject and a rare translation from Hindi! Tilted Press are such trailblazers!

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2022

And another welcome tradition on International Women’s Day is the announcement of the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which though it generally doesn’t influence my reading intentions, I do enjoy seeing what’s made the list, the familiar and the unfamiliar and becoming acquainted with them, whether read or not.

It looks like a real mix this year, with familiar names of authors I’ve read before, like Louise Erdrich, Elif Shafak and Ruth Ozeki and the titles that have been appearing often in reviews and then the lesser known surprises!

16 novels fiction Remote Sympathy

The only book I have read from the list, and likely to be one of the lesser known is New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey’s excellent historical fiction novel Remote Sympathy (reviewed here), published by Europa Editions.

This 4 minute video below gives very brief mini descriptions of the sixteen novels chosen:

Or if you prefer to read about them; the sixteen longlisted books are as follows:

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith –  (Debut historical fiction, set in Vietnam)(US/Philadelphia, lived in Vietnam for 2 years, her mother’s family fled Vietnam in 1975)

Build Your House Around My BodyTwo Vietnamese women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge. The fates of both women are linked, bound together by past generations, ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. This heart-pounding fever dream of a novel hurtles through the ghostly secrets of Vietnamese history creating an immersive, playful, unforgettable debut.

Careless by Kirsty Capes – (debut contemporary fiction) (UK) (inspired from being inside the care system)

Care LessSometimes it’s easy to fall between the cracks… At 3.04 p.m. on a hot, sticky day in June, Bess finds out she’s pregnant. She could tell her social worker Henry, but he’s useless. She should tell her foster mother, Lisa, but she won’t understand. She really ought to tell Boy, but she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks. Bess knows more than anyone that love doesn’t come without conditions. But this isn’t a love story…

A new narrative of the care experience by a writer who grew up in foster care herself. Already snapped up by the makers of BBC One’s Call The Midwife.

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – (Fantasy/Paranormal) (US/Washington DC)

Creatures of PassageNephthys is a taxi driver in DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car, with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris.

Unknown to Nephthys, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is drawn to the banks of the same river, where he talks with a mysterious “River Man.” When Dash arrives at Nephthys’s door bearing a cryptic note, she must face the family she abandoned and what frightens her most.

Threading stories of the living and dead it shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans and reluctant ghosts, bringing together a community intent on saving a boy in order to reclaim themselves.

Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – (UK/Bath) (contemporary fiction)

FlamingoA novel of love, homelessness, and learning to be fearless. In the garden, there were three flamingos, gateways to a time when life was impossibly good. They were mascots, symbols of hope.

A novel about the power of love, welcome and acceptance, a celebration of kindness. Set in 2018 and the 80’s, it’s a song for the broken-hearted and the big-hearted, a book full of wild hope.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – (US/California) (historical fiction)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadFrom days as a wild child in prohibition America to wartime London, from the rugged shores of NZ to a lonely iceshelf in Antarctica, Marian Graves is driven by a need for freedom and danger. Determined to live an independent life, she resists her childhood sweetheart, burning her way through a suite of glamorous lovers. An obsession with flight consumes her. As she is about to fulfil her greatest ambition, to circumnavigate the globe, Marian crash lands in a perilous wilderness of ice.

Half a century later, troubled film star Hadley Baxter is drawn to play the enigmatic pilot on screen. It is a role that will lead her to an unexpected discovery, throwing fresh light on the story of the unknowable Marian Graves.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – (Historical fiction set in Germany) (New Zealander who lived some years in Germany)

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyMoving away from their Munich apartment isn’t as bad as for Frau Greta Hahn feared. The new villa is  beautiful and life in Buchenwald seems idyllic. But beyond the forest is the looming presence of a work camp. Her husband, SS Dietrich Hahn has been assigned as the camp’s new administrator.

When Frau Hahn’s health leads her into a friendship with one of Buchenwald’s prisoners, Dr Weber, her ignorance about what is going on is challenged. A decade earlier Dr Weber invented an electrotherapy machine to cure disease, until politics interfered with progress. Did it really work? Might it save a life?

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way, in a world in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts and morals – is relative.

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – (Visual artist/UK/Brighton) (Science fiction/Dystopia)

Salt LickBritain is awash, the sea creeps into the land, brambles and forest swamp derelict towns. Food production has moved overseas and people are forced to move to the cities for work. The countryside is empty. A chorus, the herd voice of feral cows, wander this newly wild land watching over changing times, speaking with love and exasperation.

Jesse and his puppy Mister Maliks roam the woods until his family are forced to leave for London. Lee runs from the terrible restrictions of the White Town where he grew up. Isolde leaves London on foot, walking the abandoned A12 in search of the truth about her mother.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – (NZ’er living in Australia) (Contemporary fiction/humour)

Sorrow and BlissEveryone tells Martha she’s clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer loved by her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – almost 40 – friendless, near jobless and so sad? Why did Patrick leave?

Maybe she is too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain at 17 leaving her changed in a way that no therapist has been able to explain.

Returning to her childhood home to her dysfunctional, bohemian parents, Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is too broken to fix, or by starting over, to write a better ending for herself.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – (Japanese American) (literary fiction/magic realism)

The Book of Form and EmptinessAfter the tragic death of his father, 14-year-old Benny begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house and sound variously pleasant, angry or sad. As his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow louder. When ignoring them doesn’t work, Benny seeks refuge in the silence of a  public library. There he meets a mesmerising street artist with a pet ferret; a homeless philosopher- poet who encourages him to find his own voice; and his very own Book, who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

Blending unforgettable characters with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions, this is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – (Trinidad & Tobago) (contemporary feminist fiction)

The Bread the Evil KneadAlethea is turning 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from an abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future challenges her.

Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. She must now decide the woman she wants to be. An engrossing, atmospheric novel with a strong feminist message at the heart of a page-turning plot.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson – (British) (Contemporary fiction)

The ExhibitionistThe Hanrahan family gather for a weekend as artist and notorious egoist Ray prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, who has her own momentous decision to make.

And then Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife, also an artist, who has always put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must make a choice.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton – (US/Florida) (Contemporary fiction)

Opal and NevOpal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, a Black punk artist before her time. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together.

In early 70’s New York City, as she’s finding her niche in a flamboyant creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues, set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but be a reminder that repercussions are harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – (British Turkish living in London) (Contemporary fiction)

The-Island-of-Missing-TreesIn 1974 Cyprus, two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, Greek/Christian and Defne, Turkish/Muslim, can meet in secret hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. It is where the best food, music and wine in town is. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its sorrows.

In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and it will be there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart.

Years later in London, 16-year-old Ada has never visited the island where her parents were born. Looking for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – (US/New York) (Contemporary fiction)

The Paper PalaceOn a perfect August morning, Elle heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ – her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and 50 years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision – and an ending you won’t be able to stop thinking about.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – (Native US/Minnesota) (Contemporary fiction)

The Sentence Louise ErdrichThe Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, the reader and the book. A small bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while trying to understand all that occurs during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day and ends a year later. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during the year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Erdrich has written.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – (British/Jamaican) (Fantasy/Magic realism)

This One Sky DayDawn breaks across the archipelago of Popisho. The world is stirring awake again, each resident with their own list of things to do: A wedding feast to conjure and cook, an infidelity to investigate, a lost soul to set free. As the sun rises two star-crossed lovers try to find their way back to one another across this single day. When night falls, all have been given a gift, and many are no longer the same.

The sky is pink, and some wonder if it will ever be blue again.

* * * * *

The judging panel will announce the shortlist of six novels, on April 27th. The winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 15th June.