Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Call It Baumish Prose

There’s a kind of magic in the poetic prose of Irish author Sara Baume, something uniquely identifiable, that you know you are in the presence of within a few pages.

Irish literary fiction poetic proseMy first encounter was her nonfiction title Handiwork, one I highly recommend as a starting place to her work and style. This title is like a spring board into her fiction, an introduction to the visual artist, the poet, the keen observer and storyteller.

Seven Steeples feels like a levelling up in confidence, it casts aside the idea that a novel requires a plot; if there is one, it might be the ever present question, addressed in the first sentence of each chapter, of another passing year, will the mountain be climbed?

The Irony – A Misanthropic Romantic Encounter

Bell and Sigh meet at an outing with mutual friends and fall into step together. Soon they are moving out of their respective lodgings to a house in the country, in the south-west of Ireland; flanked by a mountain, near the sea, opposite a field where bullocks roam, neighbours to a dairy farmer and his black and white cows. They have a dog each, Voss and Pip. There is a van. A tree in the backyard.

They say there is a wild goat who lives up there, the landlord said, the last surviving member of an indigenous flock.
They say that from the top, the landlord said,
you can see
seven standing stones, seven schools,
and seven steeples.

Bell and Sigh avoid humankind as much as possible, letting go of social and family ties, of obligations, of convention. They are creatures of routine, as are their animals.

It Was Windy

wind instrument music nature champ harmoniqueBaume describes everything about them, about the house, its character, its creaks and groans, its smallest inhabitants, the habits of all those who dwell within its walls, inside its walls, outside its walls in her multiple adjective, poetic prose, that skips across the page to a rhythmic beat.

Discovering a blue rope clothes line in the overgrown grass, they string it up between the tree and the house.

Without knowing it, they had fashioned  a wind instrument. There was the flapping of wet fabric, the dull jangle of the wooden pegs, the ping of weathered springs as they came apart, the thud of timber pincers against sod.

The tree was an instrument too. The tips of its branches rapped the plaster skin of the house like drumsticks.

The house was an orchestra – of pipes and whistles, of cymbals and chimes,  of missing keys and broken reeds. All January the elements played its planes  and lax panes, its slates and flutes.  Sometimes its music was a kind of keening , other times, a spontaneous round of applause.

I had the feeling I was reading a prose poem, one that celebrated and played with words, that painted a picture of two people who’d stepped outside of the ordinary life that had become too onerous and sought another kind of ordinary; a slower, quieter more insular version, that fostered simplicity and ignored conformity, that sacrificed the greater community for being at one with the immediate surrounds.

The Hybrid Poet & Spiders

Sara Baume is hands down one of my favourite authors; I love it when a poet rises above that conventional form to create something more akin to storytelling, without losing their adeptness at poetic flow. She is the hybrid poet, one who can take a skill in one area and apply it to another and create something unique, a singular recognisable, assured voice.

In this text she surpasses what was one of my favourite ever literary descriptions of a spider, until now that prize belonged to Martin Booth in his stunning novel The Industry of Souls, for years my favorite novel.

Here is a glimpse at what Sara Baume can do with the common household spider, while subtly acknowledging their insistence in inhabiting various places, in this unconventional life:

wp-1675248154796First we meet the spider that lives behind the wing mirror of their van, who takes refuge behind the glass.

After every journey, it mended the damage done to its tenuous web by the forcing of rushing air and whipping briars.

And then we meet more, these passages delighted me not just for their linguistic beauty, but due to the familiar feeling of having observed and got to know the habits of certain household spiders, to the point of almost thinking of them as free-ranging pets. When they become something your son wants to show people who visit, who begins to trap insects himself to feed the arachnid.

A different, less industrious spider took up residence in the hollow bars of the steel gate. Another lived in the rubber hollows of the welcome mat. And there were dozens distributed throughout the house –
in alcoves, cupboards, inglenooks,
in open spaces and plain sight.

The largest house spider kept to a cranny beneath the bathroom radiator by day. By night it crawled into the folds of the towels or slid down the gently-slanting sides of the bathtub. In the morning, Bell or Sigh – whoever happened to discover it first – had to dangle a corner of the bathmat down like a rope ladder;
like a lifebuoy.

To the spider, the tub was a snowy fjord, a glacial valley – vast, unmarred, arresting. It knew this was an unsafe place. Still it could not quell a desire to summit the tub’s outer edge. Each time it was blinded by a white glare,
and lost its footing, all eight of its footings,
and skied.

Language skips, pauses, ponders, leaves gaps, creates shapes on the page, carries the reader along on a repetitive yet spellbinding journey that never moves outside a 20 mile radius of their humble abode.

The narrative passes through the months, the seasons, and seven years as they learn about the patterns of their environment and each other, about how to live in harmony with their surroundings, until these humans and their dogs are no longer separate entities, they are as if one.

Highly Recommended.

Sara Baume, Author

Irish literature Poetry Visual artistSara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and has been widely translated. Her second novel, A Line Made by Walking, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and her 2020 bestselling non-fiction book, handiwork, was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Seven Steeples, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and has just been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2023.

Her writing has won the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award, the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, the Rooney Prize, an Irish Book Award, as well as being nominated for countless others including the Costa and the Dublin Literary Award. She is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship and lives in West Cork where she works as a visual artist as well as a writer.

Further Reading

My review of Handiwork (Creative Nonfiction)

My review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither

My review of A Line Made By Walking

The Passenger Ireland – including an essay by Sara Baume – Talismans

All My Wild Mothers by Victoria Bennett

Motherhood, Loss and an Apothecary Garden

I loved this book, a kind of hybrid memoir that combined a passion for herbal folklore and a creative project, the building of an apothecary garden in a location where there were many obstacles to overcome, environmental and human, while exploring and healing from the loss of a loved one.

It reminded me a little of the experience of reading Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk, another memoir where the author takes on challenging project while navigating the tumultuous waves of grief – in that case, training a goshawk.

grief nature writing memoir motherhood loss apothecary garden

The memoir began at a moment in the author’s life when there was an unexpected death in the family; grief and coping with it, learning how to manage its lingering presence, is one of the themes she reflects on throughout the book.

At the time of this initial event, she is pregnant with her first child and as the story continues, her son becomes as much a part of the narrative as the author herself.

Victoria Bennett grew up in a large family, one that due to her father’s career, relocated countries often, that fragmented when some of the children were sent to boarding school, and even when they did settle down, did not partake in community life. They were self contained.

Used to living in places where they were outsiders, it became a way of being, even in their country of origin, England. In a conservative rural community, her mother wore hot-pants and homemade kaftans, had an art studio in the shed and had once offered to liven up a craft show with an exhibition of nudes.

Due to circumstance, Bennett and her husband move to a new social housing estate in rural Cumbria, built over what was an industrial site, a barren, rubble-filled, now rule-restricted, wasteland.

Mother and son slowly repurpose their backyard, building an apothecary garden – a construction of permaculture beauty, an appreciation of nature, an alternative education – yet encounter resistance, judgement, complaint and obstacle as subscribers to a more authoritarian rule, attempt to oppress or stamp out their initiative, unable to see the bigger picture of a more sustainable, kinder way of living in the shared world we inhabit.

wildflowers weeds apothecary garden

Photo E. BolovtsovaPexels.com

Bennett’s quest, to build an apothecary garden and educate (home-school) her son, was in part, an effort to integrate into the community, to overcome an inherited sense of not belonging, a deconditioning of learned ways. She overcomes anxiety, often lead by her son’s enthusiasm, to become more participative.

Despite her reticence, she had been raised by a feminist, ‘my mother was fierce about being fair,’ her sisters were outspoken, when Bennett discovers that her efforts to create something sustainable are being undermined by neighbours, she sets out to inform and educate them all.

“When we first moved onto the estate, the garden was a patch of newly sown grass, a thin layer of topsoil, and several metres of rock, rubble, and industrial hardcore. With no money, and only the weeds we found growing on the building site, my young son and I set out to see what we could grow. What was once a wasteland, became a haven for wildlife, and a balm for the body and soul. “

For a memoir that  navigated emotions, it had a good solid structure within which to contain the outpourings – each chapter began with a different plant, starting with the intriguing medieval, magical perception of it, including stunning yet simple black & white woodcut illustrations, the medicinal properties, a bit of folklore and where it might be found.  There followed a meandering through events, memories and reflections from Bennett’s life, that often ventured off from an aspect of the plant’s curative powers.

ALL My Wild Mothers

Photo Yan Krukau Pexels.com

Sow Thistle, Sonchus Oleraceus

Milkweed, swine thistle, turn sole, hare’s colewort, soft thistle

Hang sow thistle in the home to drive out melancholy…

Sow thistle grows abundantly on rubbish dumps, wasteland and roadsides.

All My Wild Mothers is also a reflection on motherhood, of one woman’s experience, given her own inclinations, personality and the effect of being the youngest in a family of six children. It is a celebration of the power and reward of maternal nurturing, of focusing on the development of a child according to their individual needs,

It is sensitively narrated, introspective and a tribute in particular to her sisters and her mother and a celebration of her son, for all that he teaches her, that he reflects back to her, due to the way she parents him and the way he in turn reminds her what it is to be a child, the gifts they offer having been nurtured, loved and allowed to grow into themselves authentically. He is a less conditioned mini human than most and Bennett’s articulate expression and capturing of his innocent yet profound utterances are a gift to all who read her prose.

Children can teach and remind us of so much that is simple and good in life, sadly conditioned out of us by the effect of a societal system that squashes it before it can have enough of a chance to flourish.

I absolutely loved this quiet book, that celebrates the wisdom of small children, nurtured through the early years and the symbiosis of mother and child.

Highly Recommended.

“What is grief, if not love persevering.” WandaVision

Victoria Bennett, Author

Victoria Bennet AuthorVictoria Bennett was born in Oxfordshire in 1971. A poet and author, her writing has previously received a Northern Debut Award, a Northern Promise Award, the Andrew Waterhouse Award, and has been longlisted for the Penguin WriteNow programme and the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for under-represented voices.

She founded Wild Women Press in 1999 to support rural women writers in her community, and since 2018 has curated the global Wild Woman Web project, an inclusive online space focusing on nature, connection, and creativity. When not juggling writing, full-time care, and genetic illness, she can be found where the wild weeds grow.  All My Wild Mothers is her debut memoir.

In 2022, her family made the difficult decision to leave the garden and follow a long-held dream of moving to Orkney, where they will discover anew what wildness will grow in a new soil.

Further Reading

For a Peek Inside the Garden + some of Victoria Bennett’s herbal potion recipes

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for the ARC (Advance Reader Copy) ebook provided via NetGalley.

Dublin Literary Award Longlist 2023

With books nominated by 84 international libraries from 31 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US, Canada, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, the full longlist of 70 novels has been announced for the Dublin Literary Award 2023. The €100,000 award is presented annually for a novel written in English or translated into English.

The nominations include 29 novels in translation and 14 debut novels. Among the translated books are novels originally published in Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, Hindi, Korean, Slovene, Icelandic, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese and more.

The international panel of judges who will select the shortlist and winner, features Gabriel Gbadamosi, an Irish and Nigerian poet, playwright and critic based in London; Marie Hermet, a writer and translator who teaches creative writing and translation at the Université Paris Cité; English writer Sarah Moss who is the author of eight novels and teaches creative writing at UCD; Doireann Ní Ghríofa who is a bilingual poet, essayist, translator and author of A Ghost in the Throat; and Arunava Sinha who translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry from Bengali to English and has won several translation awards in India.

The shortlist will be revealed on 28th March and the winner on 25th May 2023.

I have read two of the novels, the wonderful East German Marzhan, mon Amour which I adored, an uplifting semi-autobiographical novella that is a celebration of community, and the Irish novella Small Things Like These, I’m one of the few who didn’t get on with this novel, despite its popularity.

It’s a wide-ranging selection and it will be interesting to see what makes the shortlist. There are a few familiar authors I’m interested in who I’ve read before like Elif Shakaf, Louise Erdrich, Kim Thúy and Yewande Omotoso and those I’m aware of, that I’d like to try like the award winning Canadian author Omar El-Akkad.

Let me know what you’ve enjoyed or are tempted by in the comments below:

The Longlist

Below are all the titles on the longlist, with their genre and the country of origin of the author plus the comments made by the nominating library(s).

DLA23-Collage-1920x965px-02

56 Days  (Crime/Thriller Fiction) by Catherine Ryan Howard  (Ireland)

“a gripping and unputdownable thriller. Its structure is interesting going between the present, when a body has been found, and the 56 days preceding this gruesome discovery. Though fictional it deals realistically with the horrors of the real-life pandemic situation that the world had experienced during the previous two years.” –  Cork City Libraries

912 Batu Road (Historical/Migration Fiction) by Viji Krishnamoorthy (India of Tamil/Hokkein-Chinese)

912-Batu-Road Viji Krishnamoorthy’s sweeping debut novel deftly weaves together vibrant fiction and meticulous research on the heroic exploits of Malayan wartime heroes – Sybil Kathigasu, Gurchan Singh and many others – who fearlessly fought for their beloved country.

“This novel was chosen for its interesting history and patriotisms of Malaysia and Malaysians. It displays how Malaysia is a harmonious country that embraces multiracial aspects.” –  National Library of Malaysia

A Particular Madness (Fiction) by Sheldon Russell (USA)

“In his novel, Russell explores mental illness through the experience of the main character: Jacob Roland. Set in Oklahoma, the novel showcases the reality of rural America at a time when mental illness was often misunderstood and mistreated, as it still is today.” –  Oklahoma Department of Libraries, USA

After Story (Fiction) by Larissa Behrendt  (Australia)

After Story Larissa Behrendt

“It’s a beautifully written story, fascinatingly revealed via alternating perspectives from a mother and daughter using overseas literary travel to try to mend a difficult relationship, and illuminating the complex nature of familial ties, buried grief and historical trauma.” – Libraries Tasmania, Australia

All’s Well (Fiction/Horror) by Mona Awad (Canada)

A piercingly funny indictment of our collective refusal to witness and believe female pain.

“The plotting is a clever mishmash of Shakespeare, obviously MacBeth and All’s Well That Ends Well, though there’s a little Tempest thrown in as well. But Awad doesn’t make herself a slave to what Shakespeare dictates. She has entwined the Scottish play so brilliantly in a brutal theatre production of All’s Well, that the power plays, the ghosts, the betrayals, the madness, are seamlessly incorporated. How Awad came up with all this is fascinating.” –  Cleveland Public Library, USA

An Unusual Grief (Fiction) Yewande Omotoso (Barbados/Nigeria/South Africa)

“We were absolutely blown away by An Unusual Grief. Felt an instant connection to the book, perhaps because it has a local setting or the daily issues of life that it confronts.  While it deals with grief, it is not a gloomy book, thanks in large part to the art of storytelling that Omotoso displays throughout the novel. It is a beautifully written book that is raw in its emotion as it covers and conveys the many layers of grief.” – City of Capetown Library and information Services

Bad Girls (Fiction) by Camila Sosa Villada (Argentina) tr. Kit Maude (Spanish)

“We really loved this novel. The heroines are transgender women whose lives are absolutely complicated… They are rejected by the whole society and especially by those who use to deal with them as prostitutes.

The novel shows a solidarity and a humanity that delighted us. And even though the story is rather tragic there is a craziness and a hymn to life and joy that makes this book unforgettable.” – Bibliothèques municipales de Genève, Switzerland

Bitter Orange Tree (Literary Fiction) Jokha Alharthi (Oman) tr. Marilyn Booth (Arabic)

“Narrated in first person, the story unfolds vividly in prose full of pictures, stories, names and objects of a childhood and youth in the Middle East and the richness of Arabian culture. All these narrative elements mingle with dreams of the young woman and regrets of missed chances to close up on her own self. Bitter Orange Tree is the coming-of-age of a young woman that still has yet to fully explore her own identity.” – Stadtbücherei Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Bodies of Light  (Literary Fiction) by Jennifer Down (Australia)

Bodies of Light Jennifer Down“Bodies of Light has been nominated by popular vote from public library staff across Victoria.” – State Library of Victoria, Australia

Bolla (Fiction) by Pajtim Statovci  (Albania/Finland) tr. David Hackston (Finnish)

“Albanian protagonist, Arsim, is a brilliant student and just married to his young wife. He’s also in love with a person who is wrong for him in two ways: Miloš is a man and a Serb. Violence takes Arsim over and he get punished both physically, mentally and socially. Bolla is a phenomenal literal study of love, loneliness, passion and violence. It pictures the horrors of war and living a secret life.” – Helsinki City Library, Finland

Bone Memories (Fiction) by Sally Piper (Australia)

“Bone Memories is a brilliant and devastating novel about a mother’s grief for her lost daughter, Jess, and a son’s grief about losing his mother. It begins sixteen years after Jess’s murder, with the victim’s family continuing to grapple with the lives they face ahead and their memories of her. The novel is set in Queensland and is written by Brisbane-based author Sally Piper.” – State Library of Queensland Australia

Brisbane (Historical Fiction) by Eugene Vodolazkin (Ukraine) tr. Marian Schwartz 

Brisbane is a new novel by the the international bestselling author Eugene Vodolazkin – the winner of the Big Book Award, the Leo Tolstoy Yasnaya Polyana Award, and the Read Russia Award, the finalist of the Russian Booker Award. Vodolazkin also won the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2019.  He is a modern Thinker and Peacemaker who continues to develop traditions and heritage of a grand philosophical novel. –  All Russia State Library for Foreign Literature

Burntcoat (Science Fiction/Dystopia) by Sarah Hall (UK)

“A love story taking place during a deadly pandemic, a story about dealing with an unknown virus and loss while at the same time creating a life during dire circumstances and creating art – subtle and heartbreaking.” –  Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Switzerland

Case Study (Literary Fiction) by Graeme Macrae Burnett (UK)

“Macrae Burnett has created a dynamic work that has excellent characterisation with acute observation.  The writing is layered but there is no use of superfluous words. While the themes are profound, the style is both intriguing and playful .  He has created a book that is thought provoking and a compulsive read.” –  Limerick City and County Libraries, Ireland

Cloud Cuckoo Land (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Anthony Doerr (US) 

“This book had good storytelling in spades. Each of the characters has a relationship with a librarian, Zeno and Seymour with the librarians in Lakeport, Idaho, Anna with scribes in Constantinople, Omeir with Anna, and Konstance with the AI controller of her ship. This beautifully written book is a shining example of hope.” – Bács-Kiskun Megyei Katona József Könyvtár, Hungary

Cold Enough For Snow (Literary Fiction) by Jessica Au (Australia)

“Cold Enough for Snow is something like an ephemeral waterfall. The story, of a woman and her mother travelling in Japan, unfolds with grace – not a thundering cascade but a slow trickling that still has the power to, in time, soften the rock below into shape. The prose is elegant and unpretentious, making inferences but not enforcing meaning. The story speaks to the complexity of our relationships with those we love, and also nods towards some of the richness and value of travel and being present outside of our regular environments.The novel pushes and pokes at notions of identity, belonging and perception; invoking colour and description to honour the importance of observation, care and attention. It is a work of great softness and strength.” – The National Library of Australia

Crossroads (Domestic Fiction) by Jonathan Franzen (US)

“Suspense” – Öffentliche Bücherei -Anna Seghers, Germany

Daughter of the Moon Goddess (Fantasy Fiction) by Sue Lynn Tan (Malaysia/Hong Kong)

Daughter-of-the-Moon-Goddess Sue-Lynn-Tan“Daughter of the Moon Goddess is jam-packed novel that follows Xingyin on her path to self-discovery as she tries to free her mother and herself from their eternal confinement on the moon.

Inspired by Chinese Mythology’s Chang’e, each word of this novel is thoughtfully chosen and crafted poetically, taking you on an almost dreamy adventure from start to finish. There is amazing world building done by Tan and a wonderful female protagonist that is strong and determined. This novel is filled with magic, powerful creatures, secrets, betrayals, amazingly written battle scenes, and even a love triangle – though that doesn’t shadow over anything. Wonderful, adventurous book.” – Kansas City Public Library, USA

Devotion (Historical Fiction) by Hannah Kent  (Australia)

“The story and the characters of the book are so perfect. We love Hannah’s Kent writing and the way that it just connects with our thoughts, mind, and soul.” – Veria Central Public Library, Greece

Em (Historical/Literary Fiction) by Kim Thúy (Vietnam/Canada) tr. Sheila Fischman (French)

“Kim Thúy seals words into packets, plain and firm as an encyclopedia entry; shimmery and taut as an ode; pitted and unbendable as a curse, lays them edge to corner to end to say, do you see it now? Do you?” – Hartford Public Library, USA

Falling is like Flying (Fiction) by Manon Uphoff (Netherlands) tr. Sam Garrett (Dutch)

“Falling is Like Flying is an impressive novel in which author Manon Uphoff demonstrates what literature is capable of. With all her literary power, Uphoff manages to reveal a history that seems almost impossible to tell. A history of sexual abuse by a dominating father called the Minotaur is uncovered in a devastating personal mythology. In this novel, the Minotaur is finally overcome in his labyrinth by the power of language.” – KB, National Library of the Netherlands

Fight Night (Fiction) by Miriam Toews (Canada)

“Told in the unforgettable voice of nine-year old Swiv, this is a story of life, death, birth and intergenerational trauma that is both hilarious and heart-breaking. Swiv, the youngest of three fierce women, is worrying about her aging grandmother’s health and her pregnant mother’s mental health. All while her feisty (and deeply mortifying) grandmother tries to impart life lessons about fighting – both to survive and to find joy.” – Toronto Public Library, Canada

Four Treasures of the Sky (Historical Fiction) by Jenny Tinghui Zhang (China/US)

Four-treasures-of-the-sky“This debut novel is a stunner, historical fiction at its best (captivating, illuminating and provoking) in its depiction and portrayal of the horrors of racism, discrimination, abuse and greed.

The author has threaded a deep understanding of Chinese calligraphic arts, that goes beyond artistic standards; referenced an eponymous heroine in a classic Chinese novel; included historical events about Chinese Americans that have been relegated and left to fade away; revealed the graphic horror of a childhood cut short; and created a protagonist who continuously reinvents herself, in order to survive, and also to discover who she really is. It is no small achievement that Jenny Zhang has written a book of arresting beauty about horrific events.” – Los Angeles Public Library, USA

Glory (Literary Fiction) by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

“Bulawayo’s reimagining of the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s infamous authoritarian ruler, features a cast made up entirely of talking animals (Mugabe is the Old Horse). Bulawayo’s gift for storytelling is dazzling.” –Boston Public Library, USA

“The use of language in the novel  colourful, poetic and also comedic  illustrates the absurdity and surreal nature of a police state , built with the structure of animal stories that are typical of African tradition.”–Biblioteca Vila de Gràcia, Barcelona, Spain

Grand Hotel Europa (Fiction) by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (Netherlands) tr. Michele Hutchison (Dutch)

“It is a monumental novel about loss, the immigration crisis, the history and future of Europe, Mass tourism and many more themes. A phenomenal read which lets you think about modern day Europe.” –  De Bibliotheek Utrecht, The Netherlands

How High We Go in the Dark (Science Fiction/Short Stories) by Sequoia Nagamatsu  (Japan/US)

“This novel in interlinked stories presents a complex and deeply humane look at grief and survival in a post-apocalyptic world. “–  Multnomah County Library, USA

Iron Curtain: A Love Story (Historical/Literary Fiction) by Vesna Goldsworthy (Serbia/UK)

“Iron Curtain uses a bitter-sweet story of a doomed love affair between Milena, a communist Red Princess, and Jason, a self-declared Irish Marxist poet, to probe the political divisions of Europe which continue to affect us all. It echoes the myth of Medea in its gripping tale of Western betrayal and Eastern revenge.

It is a spellbinding novel: vividly original, tense and often hilarious in its extraordinary evocation of two wildly contrasted worlds. It brings to mind the best political fiction from Eastern Europe, such as the works of Pasternak and Kundera, now in an inimitable British-Serbian woman’s voice. With the passing of the period of optimism which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the fractured world described in this novel has an ominous resonance today.” – Belgrade City Library, Serbia

Kurangaituku (Literary Fiction/Mythology) by Whiti Hereaka (New Zealand) 

Kurangaituku Whiti-Hereaka“Kurangaituku takes readers on an immersive journey through deep time with its shape-shifting lead character. An exploration and reclamation of indigenous storytelling, it shows how language can create, shape, give life and destroy, with “one hundred lifetimes or more able to be lived by a single being.

The world of Kurangaituku is visceral and sensual, and Hereaka’s flowing and hypnotic prose is made for reading aloud. Its looping narrative structure is seamlessly woven together with the book’s double-sided and interlocking format, reflecting the Māori worldview of the circularity of life and death, transfiguration and rebirth and allowing the story to be formed and reformed in the space between author and audience. A multi-dimensional and unforgettable book.” – Auckland Council Libraries

“Kurangaituku is the retelling of a legend and so much more. It is about the power of our voices to tell our own story. It is about the importance of story to ourselves and to our culture, and the destructive nature of someone else telling or supplanting our story as part of colonisation. An amazing, thought-provoking, beautifully lyrical work. ‘Do you see what their stories have done?…They have made monsters of us both’.” – Christchurch City Libraries

Late Summer (Literary Fiction) by Luiz Ruffato (Brazil) tr. Julia Sanches  (Portuguese)

“Late Summer is an excellent reflection on the effects of isolation. A book that shows both a portrait of contemporary society, in which social classes have ruptured any form of a dialogue between them, and a realistic story of a man tortured by his unsuccessful attempt to redeem his past.

The main character, Oséias, abandoned by his wife and son, decides to go back to his hometown after twenty years away. On a six-day journey trying to reconnect to his family, as a flaneur, he retraces his boyhood and shares by streams of consciousness old memories and thoughts mingled with a detailed narrative of the events of the journey. The novel also unveils the feeling of inadequacy present in our time and presents a philosophical and perennial question of belonging.”  – Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas Públicas/Biblioteca Demonstrativa do Brasil 

Lessons in Chemistry (Popular Fiction) by Bonnie Garmus (US)

“Author Bonnie Garmus provides an original storyline that is refreshing, humorous, and very timely.” -Miami-Dade Public Library

” This is a brilliant story – of a woman who is determined to make her mark on the world and not willing to let anyone get in her way. She’s feisty, heroic, and intelligent, and she unwittingly becomes the star of a TV cookery show, aimed at teaching the nation how to make food that matters. The show becomes a call to arms to the millions of women who follow her ‘lessons in chemistry’ encouraging all to ‘use the laws of chemistry and change the status quo.’” -Norfolk Library, UK

“Great story of women empowerment set in the 1960’s.” – Laramie County Library System, US

Loose Ties (Fiction) by Yara Nakahanda Monteiro (Portugal) tr. Sandra Tamele 

“This book is both a story of love and of war, a contemporary tale that deals with the past, a call for the independence of women as political beings. And of their own bodies in search of freedom.

Yara Monteiro revisits a personal and collective history, in which the lives of expatriates who suffer the discomfort of a painful isolation are retraced. This novel is a deep, funny, and courageous novel that gives Angolan women a voice, while reflecting on identity issues.” –  Biblioteca Pública Municipal do Porto, Portugal

Love in the Big City (Literary Fiction) by Sang Young Park Korea) tr. Anton Hur 

“The novel follows the life of a young gay man in Seoul. It delves into identity, growth, pain through a queer lens. The story is set in Seoul but has a western sensibility. It is relatable and universal for readers of all background. The narrative is simple but intense and sensory with both humour and emotion. And there is in the end surprising poignancy and depth. Award-winning for its unique literary voice and perspective. The translation is great.” – Bucheon City Library, Republic of Korea

Love Marriage by Monica Ali (Bangladesh/UK)

“A clash of cultures evolves into a delicate examination of the ways in which both immigrant and non-immigrant families have shaped their children, diffusing unexplored suffering across generations.” –  Milwaukee Public Library, USA

Love Novel by Ivana Sajko (Croatia) tr. Mima Simić 

“Love Novel tells the story of a young married couple whose relationship is affected by the struggles of everyday reality. They are fighting for the survival of their love and the meaning of life in conditions of extreme economic insecurity. The lack of communication affects the relationship resulting in slow deterioration, followed by general dissatisfaction. This “love novel” becomes relevant again in today’s situation of new economic crises that we all face.” – Rijeka City Library, Croatia

Lovelier, Lonelier (Fiction) by Daryl Qilin Yam (Singapore)

“Lovelier, Lonelier is a strong study of character and explores the emotional impact of love and loss in a narrative that spans multiple countries. The writing is self-assured in its ability to connect the various characters through a number of personal tragedies. The novel tackles meaningful themes such as the nature of reality, the role of chance, intergenerational trauma, and the power of art to redeem or destroy.” –  National Library Board of Singapore

Magma (Literary Fiction) by Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir (Iceland) tr. Meg Matich 

“Magma is the first novel by Thóra Hjörleifsdóttir. In the book, she talks about the dark side of love and invisible violence. The main character Lilja falls in love with a man and is ready to go to great lengths for him. When she stops setting limits for him, Lilja loses control of herself and reality. A very interesting and well written book about a difficult subject that paints a picture of an abusive relationship.” – Reykjavík City Library, Iceland

Marzahn, Mon Amour (Uplifting Fiction)  by Katja Oskamp (Germany) tr. Jo Heinrich – read my review here

Peirene Press German Literature Women in Translation“It is a book that allows a deep insight into the daily lives of the so called ordinary people. The author treats each of them with respect and approaches with careful empathy.” – Stadtbüchereien Düsseldorf, Germany

Matrix (Fiction) by Lauren Groff (US)

“Matrix stands out for its exquisite use of language, particularly Groff’s seamless weaving of psalms and liturgical texts into the narrative, marrying the miraculous and the mundane into one ecstatic tapestry of feminine power.” – Richland Library, USA

Nettle and Bone (Fantasy/Horror Fiction) by T. Kingfisher 

“The book mixes fantasy and feminist elements that are not exaggerated but instead very convincing because of Kingfisher’s thoughtful narrative style. This is adult fantasy literature far away from cliché featuring unique characters and surprising incidents.” – Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Switzerland

Of Fangs and Talons by Nicolas Mathieu (France) tr. Sam Taylor

“A bleak tale of the disenfranchised, in this case the factory workers and others living in a small town in the Vosges region of France. Things start to go downhill when the factory is set to close, then it gets worse. Compelling enough to want to read all in one sitting. Very excellent.” – The State Library of South Australia

Open Your Heart (Auto-fiction) by Alexie Morin (France) tr. Aimee Wall 

“Open your Heart is an autobiographical novel depicting the story of two friends linked by a condition of illness and operation at a young age. A strong narrative that shed light through sufferings, power beyond discomfort, without restraint.” – Bibliothéque de Québec, Canada

Paradais (Literary Fiction) by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) tr. Sophie Hughes (Spanish)

“The pace and intensity of the narration transmits all the sorrow, anger, and frustration that might make one empathize with some characters; and yet the novel is also relentless to show how coward self-justification and the inexcusable, selfish relief of one’s anger can make a victim as vile as any victimiser. The author thus depicts in few pages the complexity of human beings and of the context of their actions.” – Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas, Mexico

Scattered All Over the Earth (Science Fiction/Dystopia) by Yoko Tawada (Japan) tr. Margaret Mitsutani

“In a not too distant future, Japan has disappeared from the face o the earth due to an environmental catastrophe. In Yoko Tawada’s latest novel, we follow Hiruko, a climate refugee on her trip through Europe searching for someone else who speaks her mother tongue. Others join her and the small group is traveling from one bizarre and thoroughly comical situation to the next. It is fascinating how Tawada manages to combine the themes of our time in this first part of a planned trilogy: climate change, migration, globalization – and above all the key question: What does language mean for identity and human community?” – Zentral und Landesbibliothek, Berlin, Germany

Sea of Tranquility (Speculative/ Science Fiction) by Emily St. John Mandel (Canada)

SeaofTranquility“A fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel that somehow weaves a mystery and time travel and colonies on the moon and a pandemic and a double homicide together into a beautiful, life-affirming story.” – Winnipeg Public Library, Canada

“A masterpiece of speculative fiction, tying together historical fiction, time travel and references to our own experiences living through the Covid-19 pandemic in an ultimately hopeful exploration of the nature of existence and human connection. A time traveling detective sent to gather evidence about a rift in the fabric of reality is the thread that draws together disparate characters across centuries including an author very similar to St John Mandel herself. She writes beautifully, rendering the old growth forests of British Colombia and decaying moon colonies of the future equally with equal parts romance, imagination and vivid detail, instilling nostalgia for both. Captivating, deceptively light, Sea of Tranquility nevertheless touches on weighty topics—colonialism, the environment, loneliness, morality in a thought-provoking way.” – Ottawa Public Library, Canada

She’s a killer (Fiction) by Kirsten McDougall (New Zealand)

“Set in the very near future in New Zealand where the effects of climate change are really beginning to bite and affect both our physical world but also our society. The book is multi-layered, often very funny in a dark way, contains many layers of twists and turns and is a fabulous read to boot. It’s a  fast-paced thriller which boasts great and complex characters. It’s both personal and intimate and about New Zealand and also the World simultaneously, dealing with global issues and events in a unique fashion.” – Wellington City Library, New Zealand

Silent Winds, Dry Seas by Vinod Busjeet (Mauritius/US)

“We are happy to nominate this novel from a local writer. The writing is engaging and evocative. The poetry of language successfully evokes a richly tropical, multi-sensual ambience. The scents are olfactible, colours brilliant, heat diaphoretic. The author skillfully dramatizes and limns distinctive and fascinating characters: Vishnu’s extended and extensive family, and community members and neighbours, fully developing their individual personalities and visages. They are not cardboard, they breathe. The plot itself incorporates global historical events as well as those in the Mauritian march to independence that serve to place the story in time. The end result is that you enjoy a quick-paced story while learning a bit about a place you never have been. A thoroughly enjoyable read.” – DC Public Library, USA

Small Things Like These (Fiction) by Claire Keegan (Ireland) – Read my review here

“With exceptional grace, economy and storytelling skill, Keegan has penned a classic story of moral courage that encapsulates so much of what it means to be human today. This short novel is bigger than any award but deserves all the recognition it can get.”– Chicago Public Library

“A tiny, perfect novel reminding us of a shameful part of Ireland’s history, seen through the eyes of a coal merchant whose eyes are opened to the iron grip of the Catholic church on the hearts and minds of his community. Heart-breaking and thought provoking.” – Waterford City and Council Library Services

“116 pages of beautifully written prose, the story centres around Bill Furlong, his upbringing, and his empathy to the inmates of the local Magdalene convent. Claire Keegan’s sublime and moving novel, covering the weeks before Christmas 1985, shows the importance of facing up to our past, and the historic collusion between Church, State, and Irish society. As Bill’s wife remarked; “If you want to get on in life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.” – Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Libraries, Dublin

“The master storytelling is in Furlong, as the gentle quiet hero. The reader would follow him to the darkest pits and back, and we do. This is a really important novel for a society where absolute authority has reigned. By the end of this book, the soul feels a little healed. “– Galway Public Libraries

Song for the Missing (Historical Fiction) by Pierre Jarawan (Lebanon/Germany) tr. Elisabeth Lauffer (German)

“2011. During the troubled times of the Arabic Spring, Amin recalls the year 1994, when he, as an orphan, came with his Grandma from Germany to Lebanon. He remembers the taboo of speaking about the 17.000 missing people in Lebanon and the silent grief of their relatives. Little by little, Amin discovers that his parents belong to the missing persons. With his friend Jafar, Amin roams Beirut and its traumatized population, until he meet a story teller, who sparks Amin’s interest in books.

Rooted in the oral storytelling traditions of the Orient and passionate, Pierre Jarawan narrates stories of the people of Lebanon to make the reader feel what is lost. A touching, political novel and a varied family story. “–  Leipziger Städtische Bibliotheken, Germany

Sons of the People: The Mamluk Trilogy (Historical Fiction) by Reem Bassiouney (Egypt) tr. Roger Allen (Arabic)

“Set against a historical backdrop, Sons of the People: The Mamluk Trilogy sheds light on the last days of the Mamluk dynasty before its downfall. The Mamluks were defeated by the Ottoman troops in 1517 at the battle of Marj Dabiq, after which Tuman Bay was beheaded. The incidents of the trilogy start with the story behind the construction of the mosque of Sultan Hassan, whose architect is the offspring of a Mamluk prince who married an Egyptian girl, Zineb, under duress. Eventually, the mosque appears to be the dominant motif in the trilogy, which creates a well-wrought narrative, helping Bassiouney to depict a vivid picture of the social, political and economic life in Egypt under the rule of the Mamluks; a period that has always raised very controversial questions concerning its cultural and political inheritance. With the second story, the narrative shifts to different times where the very mosque becomes a bloodbath of the fighting Mamluks. In the final one, the conquering army ravishes the riches of mosque. Reem Bassiouney is a distinguished Egyptian novelist. She also received the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.” – Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

The Anomaly (Popular Fiction) by Hervé Le Tellier (France) tr. Adriana Hunter 

“In this highly original and inventive novel, Hervé le Tellier introduces his characters in chapters very different in tone to mix such genres as thriller, science-fiction, comedy or spy novel. Though mostly entertaining in tone with its use of pastiche and satire, the novel also tackles darker issues such as homophobia in the world of hip hop, cancer, child abuse, intricate love affairs, unethical business. This puzzling speculative fiction with its spatio-temporal rift also questions our perception of reality and ourselves.” – Bibliothèque publique d’Information, Paris, France

The Antarctica of Love(Literary Fiction) by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden) tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner 

Antartica-of-Love-by-Sara-Stridsberg“Inni, a prostitute and drug addict, is brutally murdered in a forest. From the realm of the dead, she recounts her broken life. Rhythmically, her story returns to the end point of her existence, when the Hunter has ushered her into his car for a final journey. Carried by a powerful and poetic writing, this book sublimates the unbearable.” – Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, France

The Bones of Barry Knight (Social Justice Fiction) by Emma Musty (UK)

“The Bones of Barry Knight is a contemporary novel focusing on a refugee camp in an unnamed country. It is very moving as it depicts the impact of war on everyday people. It is raw and unflinching, but also full of poignant beauty.” – Redbridge Library London, UK

The Book of Form and Emptiness (Literary Fiction/Magic Realism) by Ruth Ozeki (US)

“This beautifully written book deals with issues of family love, mental illness, grief and loss, and the importance of friends. It is philosophical, heart-breaking and empowering, and it is also full of joy.” -Dunedin Public Libraries, NZ

“The newest title from a beloved local author, this book takes place between the public library and the youth psych ward. It is simultaneously whimsical, philosophical, and heart-wrenching. It blends sympathetic characters and a vigorous engagement with everything from our attachment to material possessions to the climate crisis.” -Vancouver Public Library, Canada

The Clockwork Girl (Historical/Gothic Fiction) by Anna Mazzola (UK)

“A thoroughly immersive read, captivating and utterly thrilling. It’s easy for the reader to ensconce oneself in its masterfully crafted, self-contained universe. The historical setting is commendably subtle, suggested rather than imposed upon the reader. Simply superb!” – Tampere City Library, Finland

The Forests (Fiction/Dystopia) by Sandrine Collette (France) tr. Alison Anderson (French) 

“The world is on fire. Only armed with love and hope, the young Corentin begins a terrible journey to the remote Valley of Forests, looking for Augustine his adoptive grandmother. A powerful and frightening post-apocalyptic novel.” – Réseau de Bibliothéques de Colmar, France

The Good Women of Safe Harbour (Uplifting Fiction) by Bobbi French (Canada)

“The Good Women of Safe Harbour by Bobbi French is a brilliant novel with rich characters and a strong sense of place. Set in Newfoundland in the final, beautiful summer of Frances Delaney’s “small” life, this book is wildly joyful and deeply sad. It challenges the reader to reevaluate the ways in which we see our lives, the good and the bad. This novel handles such difficult topics as mental illness, assisted suicide, abortion and mothers separated from their children while never for a moment leaving the central premise that life is beautiful and precious and must be celebrated. This book is a celebration.” – Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries, Canada

The Island of Missing Trees (Fiction) by Elif Shafak (Turkey/UK)

The-Island-of-Missing-Trees“This was a beautifully written book that wove true historical events into a thought provoking and emotional book. The characters are fully formed and bring to life the story of turmoil, betrayal, the need for understanding and acceptance , flitting between the present day and 1970s. The Fig Tree was a particularly unique narrator – and a reminder of the impacts of war of community and nature.” – Glasgow Life, Scotland

“A love story and a history of a long-lived conflict in the Island of Ciprus, love and hate, memory and trauma are perfectly represented.” -Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III – Napoli

 “The Island of Missing Trees is a cleverly constructed novel with a touch of magical realism. It is masterfully told and written in an elegant language. Shafak explores the consequences of the civil war on ordinary lives and future generations. Highlighted themes are migration, homophobia, religion, loss and family secrets. Shafak inspires and delivers a beautiful, powerful novel full of empathy and hope.” – Openbare Bibliotheek Brugge (Bruges Public Library)

“This novel provides a human and compassionate account of tragic, traumatising, troubling and turbulent past of Cyprus. It shows us fractured communities torn apart by war, partition, division, religion, love, loss, grief, migration, the natural world, and the search for a sense of identity and belonging that refuses to be denied. Shafak writes through the prism of hope, moving on, renewal and healing, of the need to tell the stories of the past, rather than burying them, addressing the issues that hurt, and extend our concern and eyes to the natural world, to recognise its central integral place, like the fig tree growing in the tavern, within humanity and connect with it in the way our ancestors would have done.” – Rede de Bibliotecas de Lisboa

The Lincoln Highway (Popular Fiction) by Amor Towles (US)

“This title was the most popular 2021-22 Adult Fiction book read by Iowa City Public Library patrons last year.” – Iowa City Public Library

The Magician (Literary Fiction) by Colm Tóibín (Ireland)

“A beautifully written fictionalised biographical novel about Thomas Mann. He struggles to come to terms with disaster in his family, hidden desire and nationality. He opposes Nazism and has to flee from Germany to the United Stated and Switzerland. The novel triggers you to (re)read the work of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann.” – Openbare Bibliotheek, Gent, Belgium

The Masterpiece by Ana Schnabl (Slovenia) tr. David Limon 

“What really interests the author and what she excels at showing is the human condition, the motivations and desires of her characters. In rich literary prose, she discusses the cost of personal autonomy and the explosive power of love. She also provides insight into the writing process and sheds light on a vital component of producing art with the aid of her protagonists.” – Ljubljana City Library, Slovenia

“With The Masterpiece, Ana Schnabl proved her stylistic exceptionality, you don’t skip lines with her.” –  Mariborska Libraries, Slovenia

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway) tr. Martin Aitken 

“The Morning Star is a staggering, ambitious work about the small and the grand things. We meet a collection of people, loosely connected, who each get to tell their story. One night, in the middle of regular life, an enormous star appears in the sky. Nobody knows what it is, and after a little while things go back to normal. But not quite.” – Solvberget Library and Culture Centre, Norway

The Sentence; A Novel (Fiction) by Louise Erdrich (US) 

“The Sentence is a captivating and inventively crafted novel. Tookie, the main character, is a middle-aged Native American woman just getting by and working in a Minneapolis bookstore that specialized in subjects of Indigenous culture and history. We get to know Tookie and her friends and family very well. They are each unique yet very believable. Even the eccentric ghost who appears intermittently is believable. This novel has it all: a compelling plot, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny; inventive word play; and a lively cast of colourful characters trying their best to honour their indigenous identities amid often cruel and inhospitable surroundings. – New Hampshire State Library, USA

The Trees: A Novel (Popular Fiction) by Percival Everett (US) 

“The Trees is a powerful social satire of lasting importance.” – Free Library of Philadelphia, USA

The White Bathing Hut (Fiction) by Thorvald Steen (Norway) tr. James Anderson 

“Since he was a youth he has lived with a rare muscle disease, but only when he is in his 60s and sitting in a wheelchair does he learn the truth about his grandfather and uncle, who had the same hereditary disease, and that his own mother never has told the truth.” – Olso Public Library, Norway

The Wonders (Literary Fiction) by Elena Medel (Spain) tr. Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead

“Elena Medel’s first novel is a poetic and vivid portrait about two Spanish working-class women, Alicia y María, who are limited by class and gender dynamics. The novel stands out for its rhythmic prose and unforgettable characters.” – Biblioteca de Andalucía, Spain

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria) tr. Angela Rodel 

“A dystopian vision of Europe and the world in the face of a personal and collective memory breakdown leading to ‘a flood of the past’. Smuggling poetry into fiction, his style is both poetic and philosophical yet readable, funny, self-ironic. Gospodinov’s literature is coming from a small language and territory in the periphery of Europe, but has the power of giving meaning and empathy through great narrative voices and storytelling skills.

He is the most read author not only at the Sofia City Library, but also at the libraries across the country. A number of meetings about the novel were held in the library with various readers, provoking interesting discussions. ” – Sofia City Library, Bulgaria

Tomb of Sand (Literary Fiction) by Geetanjali Shree (India) tr. Daisy Rockwell (Hindi)

“This is an amazing and experimentally written book. Geetanjali Shree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging, funny, and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders, highly recommend it, especially since it gives an insight to many customs and habits of India. A rare gem of a novel.” –  India International Centre, India

What Strange Paradise by Omar El-Akkad (Canada)

What-Strange-Paradise-Omar ElAkkad“The refugee crisis told through the eyes of a child highlights the difficult circumstances of a group of Syrians on a boat in the Mediterranean, but underscores a sense of humanism binding all people together. ” – San Diego Public Library, USA

Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić (Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany) tr. Saša Stanišić (German)

“Saša Stanišić and his mixed family (Serbian and Bosnian) flee from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and end up in Heidelberg, Germany, where they struggle to integrate, to a large extent because of the low paying jobs available to immigrants. Saša Stanišić tells his personal story in a touching, exciting and stylistic outstanding narrative Style. The novel was successful adapted for the Theater and won the German Book Prize in 2019.” – Stadtbücherei Heidelberg, Germany

“Third novel from internationally acclaimed and bestselling Bosnian-German author Saša Stanišic. The story follows a young refugee and his family who fled to Germany from Yugoslavia in the 1990s. A heartwarming and moving reflection on the process reshaping ones identity between countries, cultures and languages.” – Stadtbibliothek Bremen, Germany

Young Mungo (Fiction) by Douglas Stuart (Scotland/US)

“This is Stuart’s follow up to his debut Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain, and while both books define themselves by a fractured Glaswegian family with an unreliable and fragile mother, Young Mungo turns toward the fifteen-year-old title character (named after the patron saint of Glasgow) as he navigates both first love and unrelenting danger.

This is a challenging novel of cruelty and carelessness where conflict – ideological and physical – persists, but Stuart’s compassionate mastery of language and storytelling provides an unexpected and gleaming tenderness.” – Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, USA

 

 

 

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

“The main feature of exile is a double conscience, a

double exposure of different times and spaces, a constant bifurcation.”

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

Hala Alyan writes novels about the effect of displacement on families, the intergenerational trauma passed on as a result of losing a homeland and how it manifests in subsequent generations. She focuses on the minutae of their lives, the clash of cultures and personalities within a family, their rootlessness and their attempts to find their place in a new world that cares little for them.

Her debut novel Salt Houses followed the female line of a family forced to abandon Palestine, after a daughter visited family in Kuwait in 1967, then found herself unable to return, giving rising to successive generations born outside of their home country. Alyan is Palestinian American and spent her own childhood moving between the Middle East and the US, studying in Beirut, finding inspiration for her future characters.

“I wanted to write a family story that felt more urgent and plot-driven than what I had done in my previous work,” Alyan reveals. “I wanted to play with and unpack themes of secrecy – the lies we tell, the secrets we keep from ourselves and the secrets we keep from the people we love – and how that ripples out and what the intergenerational impact is.” Hala Alyan

The  Arsonist’s City

Palestinian American poet novelist Lebanon SyriaThis latest novel begins with a short chapter on the last day of a young man’s life. His name is Zakaria and he lives in one of the Palestinian camps in Beirut. His death is part of a cycle of revenge, one that causes people in many countries to seek asylum elsewhere, people caught in the wrong pace at the wrong time, lives changed in a moment.

The civil war had left the country riven – Shi’ite, Sunni, Maronite, Druze. Now they’ve found Zakaria. Not as an act of war, but one of love, of revenge.

Zakaria’s role in the story is small, but the impact his death has on his friends Mazna, a theatre actress and Idris, a medical student, is life-changing. It is a shocking opening and leaves the reader wanting to know more about these three friends and how they are all implicated in what happened. It plants a seed of fear that never quite leaves the narrative, an absence of the feeling of safety and security that pursues those who flee.

He sighs. “We all come from tribes, Damascus. Whether we want to admit it or not.It’s just that in a tiny place like Beirut, like Lebanon, you can’t help but notice differences. One family sees another has a bigger olive tree. One village wants the other’s water supply. Wars have been started over less.”

The Second Generation

violin tango milongas buenos aires The Gods of Tango

Photo by Felipe LimaPexels.com

The novel is very character lead and something of an immersive family saga.

After the opening chapter, the narrative jumps forward to the near present, focusing on Mazna’s three American born children, Ava, mother of two, a biologist married to Nate, whose marriage has hit a rocky patch; Marwan (Mimi), a 30 something musician, who can’t quite let go of the dream of becoming a rock star, his band now in its fifth incarnation since he graduated; and Naj, the youngest, also a musician and singer who returned to Beirut, to further her ambitions.

Much as they liked to bemoan Ava’s siblings’ careers, her mother and father understand them more than they do hers. They understand ambition, the hunger for the spotlight. Visibility.

The three children, now young adults, have all been invited to spend the summer at their Grandfather’s home in Beirut, to attend his one year memorial. Their father has announced he intends to sell and wants them all present for this last summer.

The Road to Damascus

Having got to know each of these characters, the timeline moves back to the past, before Zakaria’s death, to Mazna’s adolescence in her hometown of Damascus, her venturing into theatre and acting, the catalyst for meeting Idris and his friends, and secret outings to Beirut.

Her failed attempts to pursue her career in America. Her shame. Her reluctance. Her giving in. Her anger. Her rage. Her silence. An atonement.

You soften in the end because they’re all you have. It’s not right and it’s not what you wanted, but here you are…this is her debt and her repayment, the life she has made for herself.

Beirut corniche The Arsonists City Hala Alyan

Photo by Jo KassisPexels.com

The return to Idris’s birth city will uncover secrets and combust lies, revealing fractures and deceptions that could make or break relationships. He will be challenged on his decision and the family, brought together under one roof for the first time in years, will be confronted with aspects of their past and present that can no longer be ignored.

None of the children know anything about their parents’ childhood friend, but old photos and the appearance of his mother outside their grandfather’s house prompt questions no one wants to answer. When they see the young man in an old video, their mother’s reaction speaks volumes:

“Your father is selling a house that isn’t his!” She starts stomping out of the room. “You three are poking through things that aren’t yours! Everyone in this country is a vulture!” They hear a door slam.

“I guess she knew him,” Naj says.

It’s a hotbed of drama, of disappointments, of temptations and regrets.

An enjoyable if overly long-winded read with an abundance of detail and dialogue that felt like a melodramatic soap opera at times. In that respect, while it touched on many issues, they’re dealt with at a superficial level, a lost opportunity given the author’s background as a psychologist.

My main disappointment was how peripheral the family of Zakaria were and some of the decisions the author took about the connections (or lack of) between the two families. Opening the narrative with this family was an invitation to the reader, one that was never quite fulfilled.

The novel was however shortlisted for the Aspen Literary Award 2022 and they had this to say:

“The Arsonist’s City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the aftermath of violence, displacement and upheaval.  Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognisable.” 2022 Literary Prize Jury

A Sense of Place, A City Like No Other

olive treeThough I have never visited Damascus, I have been to Beirut a couple of times and I found that the novel evoked many memories of being in that city (over 20 years ago) and the surrounding countryside, the presence of the Syrian army, checkpoints, traffic lights that were recently installed but not compulsory, a generation of youth that had spent their childhoods in bunkers who just wanted to listen to music and party all night long.

As I read, I could hear the sound of that music and see how it became an escape for youth who wanted to escape their constraint, to take risks to feel free and belong to something outside themselves. 

“People get older, they forget how brutal youth is. How dangerous it can be.”

Further Reading

New York Times A Family Reunites in Beirut, Where the Past Is Never Past by Maya Salam

Thoughts From A Page Interview via Podcast by Cindy Burnett: the character she enjoyed writing the most, wanting to provide a deeper understanding of Lebanon to her readers, how and why intergenerational conflict and secrets provide great fodder for writers, and more. 

National News: Arts & Culture : ‘The Arsonists’ City’: Why Hala Alyan’s second novel is a love letter to Lebanon by Malcolm Forbes

“Home for me is a combination of where you have nested.” But, she says: “I always have in the back of my mind an understanding that that can change physically, for that’s the legacy of what I’ve experienced.” Hala Alyan

N.B. I read an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) e-book version thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (now Mariner Books) via NetGalley.  The book was published in the US in March 2021.

Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

This was an interesting follow up to the fiction/auto-fiction debut novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I thought was a stunning and original book, an unforgettable read.

A Black Spirit Memoir OgbanjeDear Senthuran is a collection of letters to what we might call Emezi’s inner circle, past and present.
Emezi was raised in Nigeria and is of Nigerian/Malaysian heritage; they are an ogbanje, a non-human Black spirit being, currently incarnated in human form.

If you read Freshwater, you understand the basis from which this comes from, the overlapping realities they inhabit.

I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive. What can we call the dysphoria experienced by spirits who find themselves embodied in human form?

The memoir is thus a record of the period in their life leading up to the publication of that debut novel, of a year spent in an MFA program and both the highs and lows of that experience. It is about world-bending, living in a way that is true to who they are, thus rather than being flexible to how the world works, it is like the opposite, bending the world to meet them.

Emezi lives in America but is not of that culture and it shows in this work, in how confident and fearless they come across, which is one of the reasons it was difficult to align with their student peers, many of whom held much self-doubt regarding their writing ability and expectations, common to their culture of origin.

I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.

Akwaeke Emezi Black Spirit MemoirEmezi writes about the experience and feelings of being unsupported during some of the challenges they faced and about their determination not to compromise when it became clear the debut novel was going to sell.

There is much reflection on writing, the work, they are prolific, determined and have achieved success in a relatively short period of time, despite numerous challenges. They create and share a spell for storytellers, for those trying to create books. Clearly it worked!

With my spell, I drew a map of the future I wanted, then I took those defined lines and pulled them across time, dragging them into the present. Time bends very easily; you can fold it like this with little trouble.

Most of the letters are in appreciation and record events they do not wish to forget, that mark the rise.

f3toni morrison

Toni Morrison

One of the more memorable letters is to the late, great inspirational Toni Morrison. Emezi shares a quote, words she heard her speak in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. She remembers how Morrison’s work agitated many of the students, ‘because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people‘ and how delighted they were to discover you could ‘just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it’.

The words that changed everything for Emezi though were these:

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central, claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

It is another of the spells they are using to become free.

Throughout the letters, there are references to ‘the magician’, at a certain point the reader asks who or what this presence is: a lover, a boyfriend and if one of those, is it going to endure for the duration of the book? It is a little mystery that eventually becomes a more direct subject of one or two of the letters, another record of events that transpire, of growth that occurs, of pain and hurt, of revenge even. Nothing is exempt in pursuit of the dream, to be the successful writer they desire.

A couple of the letters are to friends who are also human, non-humans, those in their life who totally get it without needing explanation, who accept their reality, with whom they can speak openly, fearlessly.

These humans are so loud in how they press down, in how they enforce their realities…It’s actually impressive, how someone can work so hard to crush a thing they can’t see.

Friendship provides a balm, and many of the letters, while they show the pain and suffering of someone growing into their adult self, lack the mature self-awareness that comes with age and wisdom. They demonstrate the importance of friendship and acceptance along the way.

In a letter To Kathleen on the subject of Worldbending they write:

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that…We are safer with each other. We see the world’s we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells.

Shiny Akwaeke Emezi Godhouse

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

After the publication of Freshwater, Emezi buys a house in New Orleans and names it Shiny. It is part of the plan, part of the future they are dreaming into being. Not everything in their lives is how they want it, but fortunately there is now a therapist in their lives, some of the reflections come from the raised consciousness of being in that process.

The house felt too big for me; it felt wrong, like I should have bought it years into my career, not thirteen months after my first book. For weeks, I didn’t sleep well there, worried that God would punish me for being so bold, for bending the world like this. It was Ann who talked me down, who told me that the house was oversized precisely so I could grow into it, so I could have the space to learn to unfurl. I needed that much room, as vast as it felt.

Writing To Jahra, another human/non-human entity, in Home, Emezi describes a return to her birth country, on a pilgrimage to a shrine of their deity, Ala. At the site, they feel seen, the entity nourished.

In a letter To Ann, called Anointing they write of the power of naming themselves, a form of disempowerment of those who want to label, categorise, bully by naming.

People want to be the ones drawing the lines, building the boxes, making the names. Maybe because stories live inside all those structures, and if you’re the one controlling the stories, then you’re the one in power. So they get really angry when you name yourself, especially if you’re the type of thing they were expecting to name. You know how it works: they form a circle around you, point, and call you a name you’re supposed to flinch from, a name you’re supposed to deny and be afraid of. That way, their naming becomes a weapon and what you are becomes a shame, a sentence, a tire around your neck rich with fire. Witch. Demon. Ogbanje. When you name yourself, however, you take the power from the wet, foaming flesh of their mouths and mold it in your hand as if it’s nothing, swallow waiting to slide down your throat, slickened with the soup of your self-knowing.
I thought about this a lot with Freshwater – what it meant, first of all, to publicly name myself ogbanje.

Emezi writes for people like them, for people who might think themselves in the margins, as an example of how to live when that perspective is shifted, when the centre is moved. There are costs when you choose or move a centre, costs they are willing to bear. They have been taught how aggressive they need to be with their wellness in order to survive.

Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.

It is an astonishing memoir, written from a frank perspective that doesn’t care whether the reader understands or not, it is for those who understand or are curious, the open-minded. And while it may appear self-indulgent, at times arrogant, narcissistic even, their work is making a splash.

I gave a talk at Yale recently, and at the reception afterward, a woman told me about a paper she wrote on Freshwater, how she was taking it to a medical conference to argue for recognising indigenous realities in treating people. It made me so happy, because it felt like a ripple, you know? You make one thing, and someone makes something else from that, and from there the world is changed, one fraction at a time.

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater

My review of The Death of Vivek Oji

NPR: Letters Reveal Author’s Strength In A World Of Destructive Noise by Hope Wabuke, June 9, 2021

New York Times: Akwaeke Emezi: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’ by Kim Tran, June 7, 2021

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima tr. Geraldine Harcourt

‘Hark, my distant, quiet friend, and feel
Your breath still enriching this emptiness.’
RilkeSonnets to Orpheus

Such a thought provoking novel.

Child of Fortune begins inside Koko’s dream. Dreams appear often in the narrative, as do memories, not exactly nightmares, they make her uneasy, leave her feeling unsatisfied.

The dream consisted simple of staring at the ice mountain. It had no beginning and no end. When she opened her eyes the mountain was there, and when she closed them it was gone. Cold and abrupt, it wouldn’t allow her emotions free play like any ordinary dream.

Japanese literature literary fiction36 year old Koko raises her 11 year old daughter Kayako alone, she works part time teaching piano, though the way she is obliged to teach it pains her. Since she bought her apartment (thanks to a partial inheritance) she has also become independent of her family, something her sister Shoko constantly criticizes her for.

Shoko chose to stay living in the family home after the death of their mother, using her money to upgrade their lifestyle, the children’s schools. She is full of judgement. Undermining Koko, she lures the daughter away, to the point where Kayako only spends Saturday’s with her mother.

Koko was in fact proud of the way she and her daughter lived in their apartment – with no frills, and entirely on her own earnings – and she wanted Kayako to share that pride, but the cousins in their setting made a too-perfect picture.

Not wishing to nag and risk losing her completely (as she had done with the father and her lover), she allows her this freedom to come and go. She suspects the visit is a way of her sister keeping an eye on her. Her daughter confirms it.

That’s right. She said we can’t let your mother out of our sight or there’s no telling what she’ll get up to next.

Child of Fortune Dreams Ice Mountain Yuko

Photo Simon Berger @ Pexels.com

Koko begins to feel unwell.

She remembers her marriage to Hatanaka and how ill-suited they were, her husband so focused on his studies, never working, all his women friends, the loss of the few of her own, because they didn’t like him.

Though she has no memory of it, her father died when she was young, she knew he had gone to live elsewhere before she was born. Her mother too had raised her children alone.

Koko suspects she may be pregnant. She ignores it.

Three people. Koko was strongly attracted by the number’s stability. Not two, not four, but three. A triangle: a full, beautiful form. There was something to be said for the square, too, but the triangle was the basis of all form. The dominant.

She remembers her affair with Doi, three years before, how attentive he had become when he became a father himself. Then in the fall, she began seeing Osada, a friend of Hatanaka, stirring up old, deep regrets.

He reminds Koko of her brother who died, a child who found happiness in making others happy. The loss of this childhood connection is deep, profound, forgotten, almost non-existent. He had been Kayako’s age.

She was sure there could be no happiness for her without her brother. For the first time, Koko knew a kind of joy that had nothing to do with the intellect. The boy’s emotions were unclouded: what pleased him meant joy, what displeased him meant anger; but he experienced his deepest joy in enduring what displeased him for the sake of those he loved. She wondered why. Though he lacked intelligence, he was endowed with love, which was another kind of wisdom.

The sister arranges an interview for Koko’s daughter at the school her cousins attend. Koko isn’t comfortable but allows it. Kayako is worried about what to say about her father, having heard a lot of people are turned down because of their home background.

Koko’s dreams are like insights into a state of mind she can’t quite grasp. She is passive, the consequences of which threaten to overwhelm her, the potential loss of her daughter, the pending arrival of a baby, the secrecy around it. She thinks of everything, except what she must do, make a decision, confront reality. She has become somewhat paralysed.

She could hear her sister’s voice now, drawing gradually closer: so you’ve finally begun to understand what a bad mother you’ve been, how little sense you’ve shown? And hear herself protest; no, that’s not it – don’t think I’ve liked choosing a different world from other people. I know I’ve been stubborn – but not about Kayako alone. All my life, though often I haven’t known which way to turn, I have managed to make choices of my own. I don’t know if they were right or wrong. I don’t think anyone can say that.

Because of the insight into her mind, her thoughts, dreams, her past, we see all aspects of Koko and we hear the damning, irresponsible voice of her sister, the judgement that wears down what little self-worth remains. There is no recognition of her pain, of her depression, neither seen within nor by others. It is never mentioned, never thought of, yet it is obvious.

One thing, though, was certain: that she had never betrayed the small child she’d once been; the child who had pined for her brother in the institution; the child who had watched her mother and sister resentfully, unable to understand what made them find fault with her grades, her manners, her languages. And she was not betraying that child now, thirty years later. This, she had always suspected, was the one thing that mattered. And although she was often tempted by a growing awareness of the ‘proper thing to do’ once Kayako was born – not only in the harsh advice she was constantly offered by others, but within her own mind – in the long run her choices had always remained true to her childhood self.

Tsushima explores this in a powerful stream of consciousness narrative that invites all kinds of reactions from readers, many sit in judgement, casting Koko as the bad mother, the unconventional mother, the selfish woman pursuing her own desires.

And yet, she is the new woman, safeguarding the home, choosing to do something she loves without it stealing all her time, so she has time for her daughter and herself. She is independent and does not aspire to that which accrued wealth can buy.

It is a reflection on the many manifestations of grief, of events, moods and emotions that arrive unbidden; often unseen, rarely unexplained, but very present; and how little patience our society can have for understanding, how punitive we can be in our insistence on conventionality, how intolerant of depression, of weakness, of prolonged grief.

Rather than stand for any one view, Tsushima presents her character Koko and shows us the effect of her struggle for freedom.

As I finished the book, which was originally published in 1978, I was struck by the relevance of a quote by the French author Constance Debré, author of Love Me Tender translated by Holly James; in the Guardian on 14 Jan, 2023:

“There’s always a price to pay for freedom. To me, that’s a happier, livelier way to see things: rather than saying there are injustices or blows raining down on you, you realise it’s all because you’re living life in the way you want, seeking out an existence … trying to give life some shape. That’s why life and literature are so connected: it’s the quest for form.”

Yuko Tsushima, Author

Japanese literature feminismYuko Tsushima (1947-2016) was a prolific writer, known for her stories that centre on women striving for survival and dignity outside the confines of patriarchal expectations. Groundbreaking in content and style, Tsushima authored more than 35 novels, as well as numerous essays and short stories.

Like her protagonist in Child of Fortune, Tsushima’s childhood was marked by the death of her disabled brother. Her father, Osamu Dazai was one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the 20th century, who passed away when she was a year old.

Tsushima’s 1978 novel Child of Fortune  won the 1978 Women’s Literature Prize in Japan, it was published in English in 1986 by The Women’s Press, earning the translator Geraldine Harcourt the Wheatland Foundation’s translation prize in 1990.

Further Reading

New York Times: The Overlooked Autofiction of Yuko Tsushima By Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @ Pexels.com

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us better off?’

‘Because’, answered Pierre, ‘ by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

Three by Valérie Perrin tr. Hildegarde Serle

From Flowers to Friendship

Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers was the final book I read in Dec 2020 and one of my favourite reads of that year. It is a novel that has stayed with me since, due to a strong sense of place in various locations in France, the unique character of Violette Touissant and her unforgettable choice of careers; she moves from being a level-crossing keeper to cemetery keeper.

“If life is but a passage, let us at least scatter flowers on that passage.”

The Ties That Bind

French literature fiction Europa Editions

Valérie Perrin’s latest novel Three, (a 575 page chunkster) is something of a coming-of-age tale of three young people in a small provincial French town, intersecting with the mystery of why they no longer speak to each other, 30 years on.

“They were united by the same ideal: leaving when they were grown up. Quitting this hole to go and live in a city full of traffic lights, noise, and frenzy, of escalators and store windows, with bright lights everywhere, even in the middle of the night. With crowds on the pavements, of strangers, of foreigners one can’t gossip about.”

Set in 1986, the years they were at high school together and 2017 – the year a car is retrieved from the bottom of a lake with the remains of human bones in the back seat – the novel glides back and forth over time, scene by scene, recounting a kaleidoscope of episodes among the three that slowly reveal the depth of their relationships to each other and how they were torn apart.

“Étienne was the leader, Nina the heart, and Adrien followed with never a complaint.”

Unconventional Families

Nina was raised by her grandfather and never knew her single mother. She is both curious and resentful about Marion, with good reason. Having such loyal friends as Adrien and Étienne and the assurity of her grandfather’s presence, she feels secure.  He is worried about her, she exhibits signs of taking after her mother, traits he is determined to stamp out.

“He panics. Like lightning in his eyes. He’s brought straight back to his daughter, Marion. His punishment. She was the same. Something like misfortune running in their veins. The mother has contaminated the daughter. An affliction.”

coming of age french novel

Photo by iOnix on Pexels.com

Adrien lives with his mother Josephine. He sees his father occasionally, a man married to another, who will never leave his wife. He becomes the victim of a bullying teacher at school, the same year he becomes part of the Three. The school year that gave him two friends and took away his innocence.

“Sometimes, he would reappear. Like some public-works inspector, or cop. He barely rang the doorbell before coming in. He would glance around the apartment, at the paintwork, the plumbing, Adrien’s school report, leave yet another cheque on the table in the sitting room, and leave. No doubt his conscience clear.”

When the car is dredged from the bottom of the lake, a fourth voice, the only first person narrator in the novel appears. Virginie is a journalist, clearly someone who was at school with the Three. This character is something of an enigma, never mentioned in the adventures of the Three.

“They had no friends but themselves.They were almost stuck to each other, like puppies from the same litter. And yet, they in no way resembled each other. Neither physically, nor in their attitudes.”

Creating Suspense and Intrigue

Three Valérie Perrin Europa Editions

Photo Quang Nguyen VinhPexels.com

Valérie Perrin is quite the master at withholding and timing revelations, drip feeding events, turning points and characters to increase the intrigue, leading the reader down various paths of speculation, until further scenes reveal a bigger picture.

As major events occur, we witness how the three respond, how their dreams are both pursued and thwarted, how secrets eat away at them and ultimately how the strength and belief in their friendship can help them, if they can overcome their inner obstacles.

Ultimately, while there is an engaging plot and a multitude of minor intrigues layered around the central mystery, it is a novel that dissects friendship, its random formation and sense of belonging, its source of support to each person and potential for envy and destruction by those outside of it.

Over thirty years, they will make their mistakes, drift apart, come together, indulge resentments, forgive each other and come to realise that acceptance and truth can set them free from pain and longing, that personal histories matter and those who were part of them can help each other to heal.

A Feast of Issues, A Famine of Depth

It is an entertaining and enjoyable novel, the way the text goes back and forth, the slow reveal, felt very much like something written for the screen, not surprising given that the author is a photographer and screenwriter.

My criticism  would be that there is an attempt to pack too much into the novel; weighty issues, each of which could have been a central theme of the novel. The sheer number of significant issues it raises, in some way dilutes them and compromises the authenticity of some of the secondary characters. The author has ambitious ideas and an interest in social issues, but as a result some are dealt with too lightly, or used to create intrigue, which at times felt inauthentic, a disservice. It’s neither a conventional mystery/thriller or literary fiction, it sits somewhere between the two, something of a hybrid.

Valérie Perrin, Author

Fresh Water for Flowers, ThreeValérie Perrin is a photographer and screenwriter who was born in the Vosges in 1967, grew up in Bourgogne and settled in Paris in 1986, then Normandy in 1995.

Her novel The Forgotten Sunday (2015) won the Booksellers Choice Award. Her English language debut Changer l’eau des fleurs (Fresh Water for Flowers) (2020) was translated into 30 languages, it won the Prix Maison de la Presse 2018 and the Prix des Lecteurs au livre de poche in 2019 and was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award 2022.

Figaro Littéraire named Perrin one of the 10 best-selling authors in France in 2019, and in Italy, Fresh Water for Flowers was the best selling book of 2020.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me a review copy of the novel.

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

relationshipsAfter seeing this title on a few end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2022, this was one of the first books I chose, to get back into the reading rhythm. Perhaps for that reason, it took a little while to get into, but once it reached the first significant turning point, the plot became more interesting and surprising and the choices the author made, much more thought provoking. It would make an excellent book club choice.

In essence, 40 year old Phyllis – who was living a conventional life as a housewife with two children, her husband Roger working at the Foreign Office – steps out of the submissive role she has been wed to, when a friends’ son comes to visit. Prior to this moment she hadn’t appeared to be frustrated with her life.

“In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

The encounter leads to numerous consequences, increasingly dramatic, that will affect everyone in the family. Our housewife leaves her middle class, manicured English lawn suburb for a rundown, seedy apartment building in Ladbroke Grove, teeming with diversity, creativity, and people living in the moment.

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

Free Love Tessa Hadley Sixties fashion UtopiaIn the initial chapters, it was difficult to believe. Every reader will bring to their reading of the story, their own imagining of how this mother could abandon all for something that feels like it will be fleeting.

But then you slowly accept it, recalling the era in which it was set, knowing there was a whole other way of living and being in the 1960’s, a revolution against convention and authority, a risk taking utopian fever spreading its tentacles among the young and not so young. A time bomb, but still.

Colette, Not Yet Colette

The teenage daughter Colette is the more tortured soul, an astute observer, a lonely intellectual who read everything, though refused to read the novelist her mother said she was named after.

“Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.”

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

While we may feel sorry for the children – the son was always going to be sent away to boarding school, an interesting juxtaposition, to set side by side, twin forms of abandonment – it is interesting to see how the relationship between mother and daughter evolves under the new circumstance of their lives.

Colette starts skipping school.

“When she got to London Bridge she put her satchel and uniform in a left-luggage locker. All she did in the city was walk around in the crowds, pretending to be absorbed and purposeful like everyone else. She went to browse in certain bookshops, in Carnaby Street she bought tinted sunglasses, underground magazines and cones of incense from stuffy little shops, also henna to dye her hair at home. Sometimes she screwed up her courage to ask for a glass of barley wine in a pub, then sat alone defiantly to drink, reading.”

Honesty versus Secrecy

It was interesting to imagine a conventional housewife having such courage or impulsivity to do what she did. The choices Phyllis makes are surprising and daring, and just when we think she is the only one capable of making such counter conventional choices, there is another twist in the story.

It becomes a story about consequences, those that are dared lived out in the open, versus those that have been hidden. Then it gets really interesting. It makes you wonder, should those secrets be kept or shared? One can never predict the consequences of either route, but this story attempts to pit one against the other.

It reminded me of the experience of reading Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Coming Full Circle

The ending is more poignant than conclusive, it reiterates the messiness of real lives and the power of forgiveness, the benefit of setting aside judgement, of being true to oneself without having to reject the other.

“Phyllis had been braced to defend herself against her husband. On her way to meet him, she’d summoned an idea of his authority, implacable and punitive, mixed up with his role in the world of Establishment power. Now she was taken aback by how he bent his head before her, opening himself so easily; his kindness drew one sob out of everything loosened and raw inside her.”

An enjoyable and thought provoking read ad an author I’d be happy to read more of. Have you read any of Tessa Hadley’s novels?

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via Netgalley.

Further Reading

NPR review –A woman embraces change in the 1960s in Tessa Hadley’s novel ‘Free Love’ by Heller McAlpin

Guardian review: sexual revolution in 60s suburbia by Michael Donkor

Interview with Lisa Allardice: Tessa Hadley: ‘Long marriages are interesting. You either hang on or you don’t’

Guardian Short Story, Dec 18, 2022 : Juana the Mad – A chance encounter at a Christmas party churns up buried memories in this exclusive tale by the prize-winning novelist.

Tessa Hadley, Author

Free Love London based fiction A9Tessa Hadley is a British author of 8 novels, short stories and nonfiction. Born in Bristol in 1956, she was 46 when she published her first novel, Accidents in the Home, which she wrote while bringing up her 3 sons and studying for a PhD.

Her writing focuses on women, families and relationships – what she has called “the intricate tangle of marriage, divorce, lovers, close friends, children and stepchildren – the web people create for themselves”.

She reviews regularly for the London Review of Books and is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta. Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, her special interests including Jane Austen, Henry James, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen.

“I love the irresponsibility of short stories. Writing short, you create with a free hand. Each new development you imagine can be drawn in to the story without consequences, with all the lightning-bolt effect of a first thought, no requirement to elaborate a hinterland. A quickly scribbled indication of background can stand in for a whole city, a whole past. And yet I can’t stop wanting to write novels too. Novels see things through. The reader is in for the long term; the writer is in for a sizeable stretch of her life. In a novel there’s not only the dazzle of the moment, but also the slow blooming of the moment’s aftermath in time, its transformation over and over into new forms. I love to write about the present, and the past that’s recent enough for me to remember. The fiction writer’s ambition is modest and overweening: to take the imprint of the passing moment, capture it in the right words, keep it for the future to read.” Tessa Hadley, Author Statement

Top Reads of 2022

It feels a little fraudulent to write about my favourite reads of 2022, when I forbid myself to read or write about books for six months of the year, while I was working on a creative writing project. Writing about books is one of my greatest pleasures, however I realised that if I could harness that energy and apply it to something else I wished to complete, perhaps I could finish that other project.

I did finish it, so I’m giving myself a break and reopening the blog door, keeping the ‘thoughts on books’ muscle active.

An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBRThough I read less than half the number of books of 2021, I did manage to read 30 books from 13 countries, a third Irish authors, thanks to Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland month in February. I’m looking forward to more Irish reads this year; there were many promising reads published in 2022 that I wasn’t able to get to.

Sadly I missed Women in Translation month in August, though I managed to read six books in translation, two making my top reads of the years.

2023 will definitely be better for translations, since I’ve taken out a Charco Press subscription, giving me the opportunity to read a few Latin American contemporary authors from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

Books Read By Country

Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination

As far as genre went, there was a much greater balance between fiction and non-fiction than in previous years, due to having been in the mood to read a lot more non-fiction this year.

Books Read by Genre

And so to the books that left the most significant impression, where I have reviewed them I’ll create a link in the title.

One Outstanding Read

Was there one book that could claim the spot of Outstanding Read of 2022? This wasn’t easy to decide given most of my reading occurred in the beginning of the year, but as I look over the titles, there was one book that I remember being pleasantly surprised by and having that feeling of it not wanting to end, and being laugh out loud funny in places.

It is one of those novels, or perhaps I ought to say she is one of those writer’s whose works I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with, more than just a story, they open your mind to other works, stimulate curiosity and have a particular sensibility that reassures this reader that the novel will endure.

“I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.” – extract from my review

So here it is, my One Outstanding Read of 2022 was :

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

In no particular order, here are my top 5 fiction and non-fiction reads for 2022.

Top 5 Fiction

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan, mon amour, Katja Oskamp (Germany) translated by Jo Heinrich

– What a joy this Peirene novella was, one of those rare gems of what I perceived as uplifting fiction, until I lent it to a friend who is a nurse, who DNF’d it, making me realise that what can be delightful for one reader can be quite the opposite for another, in this case, someone who had heard too many sad stories from patients, requiring an empathetic barrier, to endure the overwhelm it creates.

Marzhan is a much maligned multi-storied, communist-era, working class quarter in East Berlin, where our protagonist, a writer, leaves her career behind to retrain as a chiropodist, due to the sudden illness of her husband. In each chapter, we meet one of her clients, members of the local community, many who have lived there since its construction 40 years earlier. A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of the housing estates, the connections created between the three women working in the salon and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold. A semi-autobiographical gem.

Northern Irish Literature novellaThe Last Resort, Jan Carson (Northern Ireland)

– Another novella, this was another delightful, often hilarious story, with well constructed characterisation. Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, a group gather to place a memorial bench on the cliff top for a departed friend.

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters, revealing their state of mind and concerns, while exploring complex family dynamics, ageing, immigration, gender politics, the decline of the Church and the legacy of the Troubles.  A sense of mystery and suspense, pursued by teenage sleuth Alma, lead to the final scene, the cliff-hanger.  A delightful afternoon romp.

Ukraine historical fictionI Will Die in a Foreign Land, Kalani Pickhart (US) (Set in Ukraine 2013/14) (Historical Fiction)

– Set in Ukraine in 2014, during the Euromaiden protests, four characters with different backgrounds (two outsiders, two protestors) cross paths, share histories, traverse geography and represent different perspectives in this Revolution of Dignity, the origin of a conflict that endures today.

The narrative is gripping, informative, well researched and had me veering off to look up numerous historical references. Moved by the documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy, Pickhart was struck by the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people against their government and the echo of the past, when the bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery rang for the first time since the Mongols invaded Kyiv in 1240AD.

“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.”

Dublin One City One Read Irish LiteratureNora, A Love Story of Nora Barnacle & James Joyce, Nuala O’Connor (Ireland) (Historical Fiction)

– Absolutely loved it. I was instantly transported into Nora’s world, seeing their life and travels, the many challenges they faced and the unique connection that kept them together throughout. I knew nothing of their lives before picking this up during the One Dublin, One Book initiative in April 2022. Knowing now all the many places they lived and how Europe allowed them to live free of convention, I’m curious to encounter the stories Joyce created while Nora was keeping everything else together for him.

It is incredible that Nuala O’Connor managed to put together such a cohesive story given the actions of Joyce’s formidable grandson/gatekeeper Stephen, who did all he could to prevent access or usage of the family archive, including the destruction of hundreds of letters, until his death in 2020.

In 2023 the One Dublin, One Book read will be The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

London Homesickness New Zealand writers abroadTowards Another Summer, Janet Frame (NZ) (Literary Fiction)

–  What a treat this was, one of Janet Frame’s early novels written in the 1960’s when she was living in London, one she was too self conscious to allow to be published, so it came out posthumously in 2007. Written long before any of her autobiographical work, it clearly was inspired by much of her own experience as a writer more confident and astute with her words on the page than social graces.

In the novel, a young NZ author living in a studio in London, is invited to spend a weekend with a journalist and his family, something she looks forward to until beset by anxiety and awkwardness. Her visit is interspersed with reminiscences of her homeland, of a realisation of her homesickness and desire to return. She imagines herself a migratory bird, a kind of shape-shifting ability that helps her to be present, absent, to cope with the situation and informs her writing.

“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”

Top 5 Non-Fiction

nonfiction essays love effect of domination patriarchy black woman perspectiveAll About Love: New Visions, bell hooks (US)

– What a joy it was to discover the voice and beautifully evolved mind of bell hooks in these pages.

Her perspective is heart lead, her definition of love leaves behind conditioned perceptions of romance and desire and the traditional roles of carer, nurturer, provider – and suggests that it might be ‘the will to do for oneself or another that which enables us to grow and evolve spiritually’ love becomes a verb not a noun.

It is a way of looking at this least discussed human emotion and activity that fosters hope and encouragement, in an era where we have been long suffering the effects of lovelessness under a societal system of domination.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsThe Passenger – Ireland (Essays, Art, Investigative Journalism)

– This collection of essays, art and information about contemporary Ireland is an underrated gem! Europa Editions noticed my prolific reading around Ireland after I read Sara Baume’s wonderful A Line Made By Walking and mentioned that she was one of the contributors to this stunning collection.

I planned to read a couple of essays each day, but it was so interesting, I kept reading until I finished it. Brilliant!

Across 11 essays, the collection explores the life and times of modern Ireland, with contributions from Catherine Dunne and Caelinn Hogan – discussing the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and a culture of silence in The Mass is Ended; William Atkins writes a fascinating essay on the Boglands; Manchan Magnan shares how the contraction of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the Irish language in An Ocean of Wisdom; Sara Baume writes of Talismans and Colum McCann of nostalgia in Everything That Falls Must Also Rise.

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland Mark Devenport, writes about a region hanging in the balance, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; while Lyra McKee’s gut-wrenching essay Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies investigates 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.

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

And more, a brilliant essay on citizen assemblies, another on Irish music, rugby and a less enchanting one that explores locations in The Game of Thrones.

What My Bones Know Stefanie FooWhat My Bones Know, A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, Stefanie Foo (US) (Memoir)

– This was a gripping memoir I couldn’t put down. I read it for reference purposes, interested in the solutions she finds for healing complex PTSD. It is well researched, while each section contributes to the arc of a comprehensive and compelling narrative.

Stefanie Foo had a dream job as an award-winning radio producer at This American Life and was in a loving relationship. But behind her office door, she was having panic attacks and sobbing at her desk every morning.  After years of questioning what was wrong with herself, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD – a condition that occurs when trauma happens continuously, over the course of years.

She becomes the subject of her own research, her journalist skills aiding her to interview those responsible for various discoveries and healing modalities, gaining insights into the effect and management of her condition, eventually reclaiming agency over it.

“Every cell in my body is filled with the code of generations of trauma, of death, of birth, of migration, of history that I cannot understand. . . . I want to have words for what my bones know.”

Ancestor Trouble Maud NewtonAncestor Trouble, A Reckoning & A Reconciliation, Maud Newton (US) (Memoir/Genealogy)

– This was a fascinating read and exploration, at the intersection between family history and genetics; the author sets out to explore the nurture versus nature question with the aid of DNA genetic reports and stories both documented about and passed down through her family. Some of those stories and people she was estranged from create a concern/fear about what she might inherit.

Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics pondering her father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family. A captivating and highly informative read.

My Fathers Daughter Hannah Azieb PoolMy Father’s Daughter, Hanna Azieb Pool (UK/Eritrea) (Adoptee Memoir)

– A memoir of the Eritrean-British journalist, Hannah Azieb-Pool, who returns to Eritrea at the age of 30 to meet her family for the first time. In her twenties, Azieb-Pool is given a letter that unravels everything she knows about her life. Adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea, brought to the UK, it was believed she had no surviving relatives. When she discovers the truth in a letter from her brother – that her birth father is alive and her Eritrean family are desperate to meet her, she is confronted with a decision and an opportunity, to experience her culture origins and meet her family for the first time.

It’s a story of uncovering the truth, of making connections, a kind of healing or reconciliation. Ultimately what has been lost can never be found. It’s like she was able to view an image of who she might have been and the life she may have had, and while viewing it was cathartic, it is indeed an illusion, a life imagined, one never possible to live.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Have you read any of these books? Anything here tempt you for reading in 2023?
Happy Reading All!