The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is an author whose books I never hesitate to pick up, she is such an engaging storyteller. The last novel I read by her was The Colour, set in New Zealand during the gold rush, an excellent alternative to the lengthier The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

Review

Set in Switzerland, The Gustav Sonata opens in 1947 in the village of Matzlingen when Gustav is five years old, and like a sonata is structured in three parts.

Gustav lives in a small apartment with his mother Emilie who works at the local Emmental cheese factory, her circumstances diminished since the death of her husband. Frustrated by motherhood and resentful, Emilie finds little solace in the presence of her son, she  barely extends basic care towards him. Each morning they walk to kindergarten.

He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable  man; he had mastered himself. In this way Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.

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Gustav befriends an anxious little boy named Anton and inspires confidence in him. Emilie invites him to play, but then seems disturbed by his name, doesn’t want him around. Gustav visits Anton and discovers his new friend is a gifted piano player.

‘I’m going to play for Gustav’ said Anton. ‘I’m going to play The Linden Tree.’

‘If you listen carefully and close your eyes,’ said Anton, ‘you can hear the leaves of the tree rustling in the notes.’

In Part Two the story moves back to 1937 and we meet Emilie again as a young girl, attending a festival with a friend, oblivious to the troubled undercurrent gripping the continent.

Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe. But in the villages of Mittelland, the calendar of feast days and festivals unrolls through a fine and untroubled summer.

In the excitement of the day, the girls meet off-duty Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle, just as he is crowned Schwinger Champion at the festival, they’re both smitten, he tells them his work isn’t onerous, having no idea yet of the trouble that is headed his way.

‘What’s “onerous”,’ asks Sofie?

‘Burdensome or difficult. The reason police work isn’t very onerous is because the Swiss enjoy obeying the law. On the whole, unless a law is felt to be unjust, they prefer to obey it. When I joined the force, I was told in one of the lectures that Switzerland is a country where people have mastery over themselves.’

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The story unfolds and by Part Three Gustav is a mature adult and hotel owner. Not much has changed in the cool, indifference shown to him by his mother, but he develops an interest in uncovering the mystery surrounding his father, of which we are now aware more of than he. Thoughts of childhood continue to invoke an inexplicable sadness.

The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better. But she had never seen him better. She’d remained half blind to who he was.

It’s a beautifully written simple story unraveling the circumstances that brought these people together and the reverberating impact of decisions they made that changed the course of their lives. It is the story of a friendship that is little understood until it fragments and is temporarily severed, separation allowing the space to reflect on the importance a shared history brings. It’s about making amends.

Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy – coming Sept 2020

1865, in the city of Bath, a young woman renowned for her nursing skills is convinced another destiny will one day present itself. When she finds herself torn between a dangerous affair and the promise of a conventional marriage to an apparently respectable doctor, her desires lead her towards a future she never imagined.

On the island of Borneo, an eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage, overflowing with philanthropy but compromised by his passions, sees his schemes undermined by his own fragility, by man’s innate greed and the invasive power of the forest.

Jane’s quest for an altered life and Sir Ralph’s endeavours entwine as the story journeys from the confines of an English tearoom to the rainforests of a tropical island via the slums of Dublin and the transgressive fancy-dress boutiques of Paris.

Islands of Mercy is a novel that ignites the senses, a bold exploration of the human urge to seek places of sanctuary in a pitiless world.

******

Do you have a favourite Rose Tremain novel?

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Thoughts On A Novel

I read this book with great discomfort all the way through. I have a sense of having being conned. It was mentioned more than once in an Irish Times article Laugh in the time of Corona: Favourite funny books. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981, Hilary Mantel calls it an ‘overlooked classic’.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was also mentioned and I agree, there were many laugh out moments for me there and great compassion too, some recompense for the underlying sadness of a woman spending the end of her days in a hotel with strangers who become almost friends and the unexpected gift of a complicit friendship with a young man who makes up for an absent grandson.

In Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour, not only were there no laugh out loud moments, I may have grimaced all the way through. So utterly did I dislike the story and the characters, I questioned my understanding of the word behaviour, there wasn’t any good behaviour, even when the characters denied their true thoughts and said things to cover them, the behaviour remained appalling. The only exception being the maid Rose who kept the household going, working and caring her way through the narrative, shifting her alliances towards whichever household member required her attention.

The Anglo-Irish & Big Houses

Although Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright, it felt like I was reading an old English novel and I saw many refer to her as Anglo-Irish, so I had to fill myself in on what that influence I could feel in the text was about. So for those like me who didn’t grow up in either of those countries, a quick explanation on what it meant to be Anglo-Irish.

Coolbawn House, County Wexford burned in 1923 By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA

The Anglo-Irish social class made up most of the professional and landed class from the 17th century up to Irish Independence around 1920, they were until that time the ruling aristocracy. They identified as Irish but retained English habits in business, politics, culture and society. They participated in English sports, they loved horse sports, racing, fox hunting, would send their children to boarding schools in England if possible and often intermarried with the ruling classes in Great Britain.

Many constructed large country houses in the first half of the 18th century, ranging from palatial mansions to more modest ‘large’ houses known as Big Houses, a symbol of their class dominance in Irish society. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800 is one of the original Big House novels. Elizabeth Bowen chronicled the decline of the Big House in The Last September.

275 were destroyed, deliberately burned by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Irish revolutionary period (1919-1921) including Molly Keane’s family’s own estate, her father ignoring warnings to leave and take his family to England, refusing to leave the place even when he saw them coming to burn it down.

Book Review

The protagonist of Good Behaviour is Iris Aroon St Charles, daughter of an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, who grows up with her brother Hubert in ‘Temple Alice’ one of the ‘Big Houses’, built by an ancestor as his temporary residence until inheriting his titles and estates.

Now the title extinct and estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house (a house intended as the residence of a widow), came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property.

While the novel opens with a chapter when she is fifty-seven-years old at her mother’s death-bed, the remainder of the novel focuses on their life under the tutelage of a governess Mrs Brock up until her sudden departure through to her twenties when she is an unhappy, overweight, unmarried daughter without prospect, living a life of gross deception and delusion. Seeds of her discontent are sown early on, with a mother lacking in maternal feeling.

She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had us and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all. She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either, and she had no enjoyment of food, for she ate almost nothing.

Animals, food and her brother are her consolation, her mother rarely responds even when Aroon reports that she thinks her baby brother is dead, she enquires where the staff are. Her father responds and inspires hope. She seeks out his company, a kind word, favour, he seeks comfort elsewhere.

We adored Papa, and his hopeless disapproval paralysed any scrap of confidence or pleasure we had ever had in ourselves or our ponies.

When Mrs Brock intervenes and with kindness and encouragement succeeds in endowing them with the necessary confidence, he turns away shaking his head.

In those days one did not quite admit the possibility of cowardice, even in young children. The tough were the ones who mattered;  their courage was fitting and credible. A cowardly child was a hidden sore, and a child driven to admit hatred of his pony was something of a leper in our society. It appeared to Papa that Mrs Brock has rescued our honour and his credit.

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An awkward teen she revels in her brother’s company and his friend Richard. The time the three spend together is the height of her happiness, little realising they too are indulging in ‘good behaviour’ masking an ulterior motive, using her as an alibi. Her self-deception knows no bounds.

Here, to my delight , Hubert and Richard danced with me in turn. I almost preferred dancing with Hubert because I loved showing off to Richard…I was fulfilled by them. I felt complete. There was no more to ask.

Aroon is constantly striving for connection and endlessly blind to reality, and when connection is possible, where genuine friendship might have a chance to flourish, she is locked into the conventions of her class that forbid it. She lacks empathy and is unaware of her own bitterness, so we have little sympathy for her predicament.

The family live in denial of their escalating debt, living beyond their means and incapable of doing anything for themselves. When her father returns from war injured, Aroon tries to get close to him and is thwarted once again. Without prospect of marriage, her mother closing her out, her father’s attentions elsewhere, she seems doomed.

And then a final twist.

And yet. The thirty years in-between the beginning and the end leave a lot more unsaid.

Selina Guiness in the Irish Times says Keane writes the most spectacularly “nasty” black comedies in Irish Big House fiction and Keane herself request her daughter to make the biography she wrote about her more like a novel adding, “I’m afraid you won’t be nasty enough.”

Perhaps it is this that so disturbs, I like a book in which a character can in some way redeem themself, can change or transform, ‘nasty, black comedies’ and characters that take pleasure in using their wounds as weapons against another isn’t entertaining for me, I am unable to wear a mask and pretend otherwise.

I know I’m in the minority as this is a popular English novel, but I’m wondering if anyone else read this with a similar feeling of discomfort?

On Molly Keane

She was full of uncertainties, anxieties, even fears, capable of striking out in anger and of little streaks of prejudice and snobbery, but in spite of all of this, Molly’s essence was in the generosity, kindness and wisdom which won her so many instant friends. It was almost as though there were two of her, one shaped by class and family circumstances, against which she often rebelled but from which she would never quite escape, and the other which stirred into life whenever she worked her way through to writing level, and this Molly became able to see through her first self with calm amusement.  Diana Athill

Further Reading

An excellent review by a reader who loved (5 star) the book – I do know how to behave – believe me, because I know. I have always known. Dear Molly, by Juliana Brina

Diana Athill on editing and befriending Molly Keane 

Molly Keane’s Anglo-Irish life: ‘Courage, glamour and fantasy’

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A New York Times Bestseller, Pachinko is a work of historical fiction set in Korea and Japan that follows the lives of one family and how their circumstances and choices continue to reverberate through the generations.

It demonstrates how discrimination towards ‘perceived outsiders’ and their descendants becomes so deeply ingrained within a culture it distorts the way people live, even when from the outside there is no visible difference.

I won this book from the publisher after answering the question, “What do you think Min Jin Lee wanted to express with her first line of the book?” I hadn’t read the book then, but I liked how thought-provoking the first line (below) was. I’ll share my response at the end of the review.

History has failed us, but no matter.

Review

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When we meet the family it is 1910, an ageing fisherman and his wife live in Yeongdo, a coastal village near Busan in Korea. They decide to take in lodgers for extra money. They’ve had three sons, but only Hoonie, (27) the eldest and weakest survived.

Hoonie was born with a cleft palate and a twisted foot; he was however, endowed with hefty shoulders, a squat build, and a golden complexion. Even as a young man, he retained the mild, thoughtful temperament he’d had as a child.

1910 was the year Japan annexed Korea. After years of war, intimidation and political upheaval; the country would be considered a part of Japan until 1945.

Hoonie went to school long enough to learn to read and write Korean and Japanese well enough to manage the boarding house ledger and do sums so he wouldn’t be cheated in the market. They raised him to be clever and capable ensuring he’d manage when they weren’t around. One day a matchmaker paid them a visit.

We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly.

Marriage in that era was like a business transaction, a person’s chances were attributable partly due to physical attributes and mostly by their family’s potential for a dowry and gifts. Hoonie was fortunate, he married Yangjin who after losing her first three, gave birth to Sunja, her fourth child and only girl. When she was 13 her father died of tuberculosis.

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Sunja and her mother work hard running the boarding house; her life is turned around when at 16, she is cornered by a group of boys on her way home from the market. Husan, a man twice her age, intervenes and forms a friendship with her, eventually seducing her; she believing he will marry her.

When she learns of his wife and family in Osaka, she severs contact and accepts an offer of marriage from a Isak, a gentle, young man recovering from illness in their boarding house, soon to depart for Osaka to be with his brother and take up a role as assistant minister in the church.

Isak noticed that when Sunja worried,  she furrowed her brow like she was trying to see better. He liked being with her;  she was capable and level-headed.  She was not helpless, and that was appealing because, although he wasn’t helpless himself, Isak knew that he was not always sensible. Her competence would be good for what his father had once termed Isak’s “impractical nature”.

The couple move to Osaka and live with Yoseb and his wife and discover life is more difficult than Isak realised. Survival is already a challenge, but being outside their native country they encounter for the first time that they are foreigners, perceived differently.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

After giving birth to her son Noa, they have a son together and the boys are raised as if Isak is father to them both. Sunja’s affinity for hard work and her ability to negotiate and stand up to situations, leads her and her sister-in-law into working to support the family despite resistance from her brother-in-law.

Isak knew how to talk with people, to ask questions, and to hear the concerns in a person’s voice; she seemed to understand how to survive, and this was something he did not always know to do. He needed her; a man needed a wife.

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The women in this lengthy saga are stalwarts, it is their story, their trials and tribulations that carry the narrative and make it unique. This could easily have been a story about the underworld inhabited by men who survive and thrive on the other side of the law; instead the author ventures into the lives of women, showing how they support and strengthen families.

It is a story of their endurance and survival and how perceptions change as one generation segues into the next and yet shame and stigma continue to exert their undermining influence.

I loved the book and the immersive experience it offered due to the combination of carefully drawn characters, the attention to the detail of their lives and the expectations under which they lived.

It is clearly a work of great dedication and love, the author originally wrote a version called ‘Motherland‘ which was completely rewritten after living in Tokyo for five years, meeting and interviewing many Korean-Japanese people, discovering how much more complex their lives, identities and connections to both countries were. It necessitated a complete rewrite, taking the story back to 1910, resulting in this extraordinary, all-encompassing, immersion into a rich cultural and familial history.

The Title

It is not until page 142 that we come across ‘pachinko’, the Japanese name for pinball, a huge industry in Japan at the entry into the workforce of Sunja’s son Mozasu.

We discover the difficulty Korean-Japanese citizens have in the workforce, unable to work in ordinary professions, pushed out to the margins of society where they become street traders or involved in ‘less than ideal’ industries such as pachinko parlours. Many  Korean-Japanese person she met had a historical or social connection to pachinko.

It is a metaphor for the predicament of Koreans in Japan, caught in the aftermath of historical conflicts as they win, lose, struggle to survive, sometimes thrive and sustain their gains.

I did not know until I lived in Japan that it was a business dominated by the Korean Japanese. It’s also seen as very second class and kind of vulgar and dirty and dangerous business,” said Lee, adding that these sorts of words and attitudes are still commonly associated with Korean Japanese, even those who have lived in Japan for decades.

My Response to That Question

On the opening line of the novel: History has failed us, but no matter.

History refers to the past and it seems that there are situations or circumstances that have been lived through before, whose lessons have not filtered through to future generations. Tragedy, destruction, suffering and corruption continue. Certain people of every generation encounter inequality and discrimination, no matter what they do to blend in.

However, we should not lose hope, as somewhere in our subconscious we carry the will to survive and thrive no matter what the circumstance. The future belongs to all of us, as yet unknown, to be ventured forth into without preconception.

Further Reading

YouTube – What is Pachinko? Japan’s Strangest Obsession

Business Insider Article – Japan’s pinball gambling industry rakes in 30 times more cash than Las Vegas casinos

Buy a copy of Pachinko via Book Depository

 

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, a popular English novelist who wrote 12 novels, was compared by Anne Tyler to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, she described them as “soul sisters all”.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was named by the Guardian as one of ‘the 100 best novels,‘ and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It is a humorous and compassionate look at friendship between an old woman and a young man at a time in her life when she has little to look forward to.

We meet Mrs Palfrey as she is checking in for a long stay at the hotel, after having visited her only daughter in Scotland. A widow who is not ready for a nursing home, she joins an eccentric group of fellow residents, doing their best to maintain their dignity and cope with boredom while competing with each other over the calibre of their visitors.

‘And you wouldn’t care to live in the North?’ Mrs Arbuthmot asked, probing.

Mrs Palfrey had not been invited to, and she did not get on well with her daughter, who was noisy and boisterous and spent most of her time either playing golf or talking about it. ‘I doubt if I could stand that climate,’ she replied.

Regrettably, she mentions the existence of her grandson Desmond, who works at the British museum and for whom she is knitting a sweater. It comes to their notice that he hasn’t visited.

‘If we don’t see him soon, we shall begin to think he doesn’t exist.’

‘Oh, he will come’ Mrs Palfrey said, and she smiled. She really believed that he soon would.

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He doesn’t come and it causes her to participate in her age old habit of ‘saving face’ which also involved small lies and having to keep track of what she’d said, which became a strain.

One day on her return from the library she falls and is helped by a young man named Ludo, whom she learns is a struggling but determined writer. She misunderstands when he says he works in Harrods.

‘Oh no, I don’t work for Harrods. I work at Harrods. In the Banking Hall. I take my writing and few sandwiches there. It’s nice and warm and they’re such comfortable chairs. And I save lighting this gas-fire, which eats up money.’

To thank him, she invites him to dine with her at the hotel and when letting the waiter know she would be expecting a guest on Saturday, declines to correct one of the residents. It is a fortuitous meeting and the beginning of an unlikely but mutually beneficial friendship.

‘So your grandson is coming to see you at last’, Mrs Arbuthnot had said on her slow way past Mrs Palfrey’s table and, for some reason she searched for later, Mrs Palfrey let her go without a word.

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And so the comedy begins, Ludo relishing his role as Desmond and the opportunity to observe them all, seeing it all as research for his novel, which he renames after one of Mrs Palfrey’s comments at dinner.

‘Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’

‘It has entered her soul.’

”But we aren’t allowed to die here.’

He threw back his head and laughed….He thought, I mayn’t write it down, but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here by Ludovic Myers.

It’s like watching an old style, witty English television series, you read the lines and can imagine the way they speak, with air of pompous superiority, which has become even more elevated in the bourgeois elderly.

I loved the little lie Mrs Palfrey tells and the consequence it brings her, it’s perhaps the most interesting thing that happens to her and that she really looks forward to in her time at the Claremont, a random connection with a stranger, a budding new relationship, the envy of others and for him, a character study, a kind of mother figure of a different kind, and the title of his novel.

It was interesting how in this era people lived in inexpensive hotels as an alternative to independent living, not having to cook or clean or take care of any of the infrastructural requirements of a house or apartment. I’ve just read another novel about a woman who lived in a hotel in France, Colette’s The Shackle, only her protagonist was close to 40 years old, so she and her “hotel companions” got out and about more and their escapades were of a different nature.

Have you read any of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels?

Further Reading

Guardian: The 100 best novels: No 87 – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)

Buy a Copy of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont via Book Depository

Benediction by Kent Haruf

And finally, the third book in the Plainsong trilogy, Kent Haruf’s penultimate of his writing career, Benediction.

A man named Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store in Holt,  nears the end of his life. The stress of caring for him put his wife in hospital, so their daughter Lorraine returns home to help.

Next door Berta-May lives with her grand-daughter Alice whose mother died some years earlier. Lorraine takes an interest in Alice as do the Johnson’s, Willa and her 60 year-old unmarried daughter Alene.

The Reverend Lyle visits, new to Holt, sent from Denver after what happened there. His wife and son are having difficulty getting used to the place.

I doubt if he’s accustomed to small towns.
He better start getting accustomed to them, Dad said.
The women turned and looked at him. They’d thought he was asleep. Hi head was turned toward the window and he wasn’t looking at them when he talked.
Nothing goes on without people noticing, he said.

Haruf plants small seeds of intrigue in his books, one line that isn’t explained further, that suggests something that occurred in the past, we know eventually it will come out, just not yet. For all his plain talking and minimalist use of literary devices, he successfully hooks the reader early on.

He had some trouble in Denver, I heard. I believe that’s why he was sent here.

A young couple come to see him, all dressed up, asking if he could marry them, immediately. First they have a little talk about what love means to them, the girl gives her version, then the boy. The reverend is satisfied they understand and adds his thoughts to theirs.

Love is the most important part of life isn’t it. If you have love, you can live in this world in a true way and if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all. Love is patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.

Moved by the day he shares a little of his delight with his wife and teenage son that evening at dinner. Later, before bed, the boy comes to his mother. Others in the community will also be upset by the things the Reverend has to say, unable to understand his intent.

Why does he have to talk like that? It makes me sick.
Don’t talk about him that way.
He’s not preaching here. At the table with us. But he still sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral.
He means well, you know that. He was trying to tell us about something that was important to him.
He’s full of shit Mom.
Don’t talk like that. It’s not true.
It is. I can’t stand it when he talks like that.

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There are the humorous dialogues I’ve come to expect, the laugh out loud moments, that catch you unawares and you just want to reread them because they’re so good.  It’s a novel that observes ageing from different angles, through different minds.

Willa asks her daughter if she’s not too lonely, she says she tries not to think about it and her mother tells her, oh but you will dear, but it’ll get better.

How will I get better?
It’s gets better. Everything gets better.
How?

And then you get your laugh out moment, which I won’t spoil by telling you what she says! When the women characters Willa, Alene, Lorraine and Alice come together, they’re bridging the deficit each of them has in their lives, opening up and allowing their personal stories to move forward.

Dad Lewis comes to the realisation that in order to let ago, he needs to make amends for some things in his life he realises he regrets. Where he is unable to, he makes certain spontaneous redemptive acts, paying it forward.

It wasn’t until I read this third book that I began to wonder about the titles and I realised I didn’t even know what plainsong meant. The titles seem symbolic despite the fact that Haruf avoids literary devices in his narrative. Haruf said of his prose in an interview, it includes “almost no metaphors or figurative language” because he was “trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.”

I learn that plainsong refers to ‘words that are sung, without any instrumental accompaniment’ which describes his style, a continuous melodic narrative, a work of austere realism, free of literary ornamentation.

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Eventide refers to evening, or the end of the day, the period of decreasing daylight from late afternoon until nightfall, the continuation of the story that started with Plainsong. These books are more connected to each other than Benediction, like the day and night of one story, whereas the third book could be standalone, with only the briefest mentions of past characters if at all.

Benediction is the double act, to give a blessing and ask for divine guidance, to both be thankful and to ask for guidance in the days to come. The book’s epigraph says ‘the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness’. Appropriate to the living and to the dying.

Haruf’s preferred aesthetic strategy is simply to present his characters from the outside, as we follow what they do, what they say, and how they interact with others. To an extent, the inner lives of these characters remain something of a mystery to us, but this also seems to be an intentional effect — we must infer motive from a character’s actions and at times allow emotion to remain implicit. Daniel Green, Full-Stop

The real draw to his stories then are the characters and their situations, their understated way of being with each other, the little that is said, the importance that something must be said, the situations that force that to occur.

Everyone has their underlying wounds, but rather than excavate their thoughts, Haruf creates examples of how people move on (literally) from their situations, often in small ways, to heal and find faith in humanity again. And suffer again, in that never-ending cycle of growth.

Overall, an excellent and thought provoking trilogy to have read during this quite time of confinement.

Further Reading

My review of Book 1 Plainsong

My Review of Book 2 Eventide

Eventide by Kent Haruf

In Eventide, the second book in the Plainsong trilogy, we meet some of the same characters and a few more from the community of Holt, Colarado. There are again the quiet observations of the lives of people in this town, seeing them from the inside, the different challenges they each face and how they cope (or not) with them.

There’s that trademark humour that creates a number of laugh out loud moments, for which we are grateful. Because some of it is sad, realistic and may bring tears.

There’s a small boy named DJ who lives with his elderly grandfather Walter Kephart, DJ makes supper for his grandfather every evening and befriends two girls who live next door, in particular Dena. He cleans the yard and works on the vege garden for their mother Mary Wells. Their father is working in Alaska and returns rarely. And then not at all.

We again meet the McPheron brothers Raymond and Harold and the girl Victoria who has been living with them since she became pregnant. Now she has a little girl Katie and is about to move into an apartment and resume college studies.

It is a challenging transition for all of them, as they have become used to each other and the brothers have become much more perceptive about themselves and their “like a daughter” Victoria. She calls one night, for no particular reason and they discuss afterwards the things she didn’t say.

The way she sounded. The way her voice was.
No, it wasn’t money that made her voice sound that way. It was the rest of it too.
Well, I reckon she’s kind of lonesome, Raymond said. I’m going to say she kind of misses being here.
I guess maybe she does, said Harold.

Rose Tyler is a social worker and through her, we meet a loving but vulnerable family, a couple with special needs, struggling to raise two children, while finding several aspects of their lives difficult to manage. Their story is painful to read as they become prey to a predatory relative whom they are unable to eject from their lives and will be judged for.

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And though each family has it’s struggles and hardships, somehow people’s paths cross and sometimes good wins over bad, a closed heart opens, someone is in a position to be there for another just at the right moment, even when they don’t have the words.

Beside her Guthrie stood watching the old man. He wanted to think of words that would make some difference but there were none in any language he knew that were sufficient to the moment or that would change a single thing. They stayed quite for some time.

And an old man who has never done it before, learns to dance and find joy once again.

She moved backward and he followed her. She backed again and he stayed with her, moving slowly. Can you hear the beat? she said.
No ma’am. I can’t think about that and not step on you at the same time.

I recognised that feeling about halfway into Eventide of becoming completely enamoured and invested in the characters, wanting the best for them, feeling afraid for them. In their own small worlds they struggled separately, not knowing, but discovering that part of the solution to their moving out of one state and towards an improved one was about making that connection with others, being open to the kindness of people, finding those who were genuine in that offering, being prepared to take that risk.

Beautifully written, incredibly moving, a wonderful book.

Further Reading

My review of Book One Plainsong

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong is a what I’d call rural town domestic fiction, it reminds me of reading Anne Tyler, they’re like the yin and yang of small town America storytelling.

The language is plain speaking and goes beyond what is said, sharing those unspoken moments that come from people who spend more time in proximity to the land and with animals and nature than humans.

We are introduced to a few members of the Holt, Denver community, each chapter headed with a name starting with the school teacher Tom Guthrie and his sons Ike and Bobby. Tom takes care of his nine, ten-year-old boys because their mother is upstairs in her darkened room, disinclined to come out.

They visit cattle ranchers, the McPheron brothers Raymond and Harold, to help out with the cows when they need an extra pair of hands. The brothers have never married, live alone in the house they grew up in, left suddenly when both parents were killed in a car accident. After helping out they pay the boys ten dollars each, against the wishes of their father.

That’s too much, their father said.
Should we give it back?
No, he said. He took his hat off and scratched the back of his head and put his hat back on. I guess not. That would be an insult. They want you to keep it. They enjoyed having you out there.
But Dad, Ike said.
Yes?
Why didn’t they ever get married? And have a family like everyone else?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. People don’t sometimes.

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Victoria is a pregnant teenager whose mother locked the door on her. She finds refuge first with Maggie, then with the McPheron brothers. Maggie  envisages the ideal solution, that could help each other out, something that would never have happened without her intervention. Victoria doesn’t tell anyone who the father is, but she tells Maggie that he was nice to her.

He told me things.
Like what for instance?
Like once he said I had beautiful eyes. He said my eyes were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night.
They are, honey.
But nobody ever told me.
No, Maggie said, they never do.

There are the innumerable kindnesses by some in the community and many cases of abandonment by others. Those who are quick to judge and those who care enough to help find solutions.

Haruf quietly explores the intricate ways of his diverse set of characters, whose lives traverse through quiet, mundane moments and dramatic turning points, showing how necessary a community is to all the individuals within it.

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Victoria asks Maggie again for help, to navigate the silence in the McPheron household.

It’s so quiet out there, the girl said. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. We eat supper. They read the paper. I go into my room and study. And that’s about it. Every day it’s like that.
Is everything else all right?
Oh, they’re kind to me. If that’s what you mean. They’re nice enough.
But they don’t talk, Maggie said.
I don’t know if they even want me out there, the girl said. I can’t tell what they’re thinking.

There is humor in the simplicity of it all, of people coming out of their shells, of the learning and there is pain, the suffering inflicted by those who need to act out on how bad they feel inside.

You’re not talking to her, Maggie Jones said. You and Raymond don’t talk like you should to that girl. Women want to hear some conversation in the evening. We don’t think that’s too much to ask. We’re willing to put up with a lot from you men, but in the evening we want to hear some talking. We want to have a little conversation in the house.

And then there are those moments of renewal, of something new that awakens, when the good that comes from making the change begins to bear fruit, to make a difference in someone’s life, knowing they are not alone, that they are loved, that humanity can shine through.

It’s a quiet comfort read, perfect for this extended period of confinement and it is the first novel of a trilogy, so next up  is Eventide, then Benediction.

The Adventures of China Iron

Translated Fiction by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre

Wow. This is quietly revolutionary. And funny. Educational. Expansive. Luminous. Brilliant.

I want it to win.

Drawing inspiration from other texts that have in turn been inspired by a life, or experience lived in Argentina, whether the epic poem ‘the gaucho’ Martin Fierro by José Hernández (a lament for a disappearing way of life) or the autobiography Far Away & Long Ago of the naturalist  William Henry Hudson, The Adventures of China Iron is a beautiful elegy (for there will be consolation), a brilliant feat of the imagination that takes readers on an alternative journey.

China Iron, wife of Martin Fierro, who in the original version was given just a few lines, is now the lead and is about to awaken to all that is and can be.

Her adventure is a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia, from naive to knowledgeable, from woman to young brother to lover, from unconscious to awakened, from surviving to aware to thriving.

While I was writing I felt I was describing the mind-blowing experience of being a newborn since in China’s eyes everything is new and has the shape and shininess of a new discovery. She is trying out her freedom, travelling for the first time, leaving the tiny settlement in which she had spent her whole life. She is discovering the world, the different paths through it, love. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Part One – The Pampas
China was passed over to Martin Fierro in holy matrimony in a card game. She bore him two children before he was conscripted, what a relief. Scottish Liz had her husband Oscar taken in error, so she packs a wagon to go and find the land they’ve procured, taking China and the dog Estreya with her. This is the beginning of China’s awakening, she will learn from Liz and being in nature, on the move.

Who knows what storms Liz had weathered. Maybe loneliness. She had two missions in life: to resuce her gringo husband and to take charge of the estancia they they were to oversee.

Liz informs China about the ways of the British Empire, clothing, manners, geography, Indian spices, African masks. Some things she understands, others take longer to reconcile. She discovers ‘a birds eye view’ from up there on the wagon.

And I began to see other perspectives: the Queen of England – a rich, powerful woman who owned millions of people’s lives, but who was sick and tired of jewels and of meals in palaces built where she was monarch of all she surveyed – didn’t see the world in the same way as, for example a gaucho in his hovel with his leather hides who burns dung to keep warm.

For the Queen the world was a sphere filled with riches belonging to her, and that she could order to be extracted from anywhere; for the gaucho, the world was a flat surface where you galloped around rounding up cows, cutting the throats of your enemies before they cut your own throat, or fleeing conscription or battles.

China leaves behind neglect and enters the realm of non-violent company, nourishment and knowledge. She comes to think of the wagon as home and falls for Liz’s charm. They track Indians by examining the dung of their animals. When they see it’s fresh, they stop and change.

I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad.

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They encounter a lone gaucho (cowboy) Rosario and his herd of cows, he becomes the fourth member of their party. We learn his tragic backstory as well. He laughs at China’s clothing, but says it’s a good idea and that all women should carry a knife the way men do.

We knew he was talking about his mother and how he’d have preferred her to have grown a beard if it meant she’d have stayed a widow with him by her side instead of that monster.

They make slow progress, in part due to China’s desire that this in-between peaceful co-existence, the happiest she’s ever experienced, never ends.

In Part Two, The Fort – they arrive at the estancia run by Hernandez, they dress in their chosen uniforms Liz had allocated from the stores inside the wagon;

uniforms for every kind of position on the estancia according to the imagination of the aristocrat and his stewards, Liz and Oscar.

Here they come across the opposite of what they’d found in the plains, here is a world run by the self-righteous Hernandez, who runs his estancia like a dictatorial regime, with strict rules and regulation, reward and punishment, inspiring hatred and allowing revenge. Seeing himself as the seed of civilisation, others as savages with no sense of history and the gauchos as his protegé, he sets out to retrain them in his ways, with a whip and a rod.

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Part Three – Indian Territory
In the final part they come into contact with the indigenous population and even the air feels easier to breathe. Here the language changes, perception changes, there is acceptance, equilibrium, reunion.

This whole section reminded me of the shape-shifting shamans, of a higher perception or consciousness, living with the indigenous people allows them to let go of all expectations and see with different eyes.

“Although we have been made
to believe that if we let go
we will end up with nothing,
life reveals just the opposite:
that letting go is
the real path to freedom.”

– Soygyal Rinpoche

I absolutely loved this, I hope it wins the International Booker 2020 thoroughly deserving in my opinion.

Ever since I had the idea of giving China a voice, I had one thing clear in my mind: I wanted her tale to be an experience of the beauty of nature, freedom in body and mind; a story of all the potential and possibilities in store when you encounter other people, of the beauty of light. I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Further Reading

Interview: International Booker Prize 2020 Interview with author and translators

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I loved listened to Ocean Vuong talking about writing, he’s an incredibly articulate speaker and an accomplished poet, his writing sophorific and it is easy to be lulled into it’s cadence and rhythm. I am the kind of reader who often prefers a poet’s prose to their poetry, easily swayed by the poet’s promise of enrapture in the long form.

I loved the premise of this novel, a letter to an illiterate mother, a lofty intellectual promise, a notion that allows for a lack of self consciousness, a daring fearlessness of judgment, knowing she can and will never read it.

This was my second attempt to read fiction after a long pause, and with hindsight, it was not the best choice. I was lured into reading it looking for something other than what I found, or did it lose sight of itself and its intention, a letter to a mother, is it fair that we come to it with expectations? I can only ask that question now with some distance from the narrative because at the time of reading, it was too raw.

For me, it too often felt like the letter writer, the narrator was looking at himself, reliving intimate experiences and I wondered why it was he felt a mother needed to be witness to all of that, in such detail. Yes, it is a beautifully written account, and many have and will read it with little recollection of its purpose and find only beauty in its construction.

The parts I enjoyed most were the recounting of aspects of Ma (Rose’s) and Lan’s lives, the comparison of the nail salon to the tobacco fields, the sacrifices one generation makes for another, the divide between the educated and the uneducated, families fragmented by an internal cultural divide, a sense of loss, the necessity of letting go.

Somehow he managed to survive his proximity to drugs and addiction, thanks perhaps to his intelligence or ambition to express himself, perhaps I wanted less poetry and more story around community and the connections that lifted him out of becoming another statistic. I look forward to seeing what comes next, how he chooses to uses his gift. It is beautifully written, in a lyrical flow, a coming of age incantation, an author to watch.

I was sad to read that the author’s mother passed away in November 2019 at the tender age of 51, Ocean Vuong shared this news and a photo of her on his Instagram page, honoring her, and all working class mothers who had put their heads down through decades of back breaking work so their children could hold their heads up.

Born in war but having lived in peace, she now begins her journey through the bardo. What can a son say to the great loss from which he owes his own life? Only that my world has changed forever. it can never be what it was. it is absolutely less—and yet perennially more because of what you have given me, Ma. you taught me that our pain is not our destiny—but our reason. you gave me all the reasons. thank you. i bow to you. i will see you again. every word was always for you. every sentence a life (- giving) sentence. Ocean Vuong

Further Reading

The 10 Books I Needed To Write My Novel – Ocean Vuong on Herman Melville, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, James Baldwin, lê thị diễm thúy, and More

Interview: War Baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet by Claire Armistead, Guardian

International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020

Today something different as the shortlist has been announced for the Booker International Prize 2020. If you missed the long list click on the link, containing summaries of the original 13 books, as it’s often from the long list that we find the gems! Long List of International Booker Prize 2020

All these books have been translated into English from another language and culture. The judges have gathered and continued their discussion from their respective homes in Lyon, Bangalore, New York, Los Angeles, London and Scotland.

The shortlist features titles translated from five languages: Spanish, German, Dutch, Farsi and Japanese. The shortlisted authors represent six countries and their books examine humanity’s need to understand the world through narrative, either through sharing our own stories, through understanding our histories and origins, or through processing trauma and grief.

Three of the novels, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran), The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) and Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (Germany) were inspired by their nations’ histories – namely the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, gaucho culture in 1870s Argentina, and the Thirty Years’ War in Germany.

Each of these books borrows existing myths, legends and origin stories but reinterprets these tales with modern sensibilities, celebrating the pursuit of intellectual freedom, the exploration of sexual identity, and survival in the face of political unrest and sweeping illness.

The other three shortlisted titles, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Mexico), The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japan) and The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (The Netherlands) all touch on how trauma, whether through violent acts or emotional loss, shape our experiences and approach to the world.

Here is what each of the judges said today in their collective announcement:

We were looking for novels that had a really clear and potent voice. That haunted us and stayed with us. We were looking for novels that were incredibly well translated. Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature & Spoken Word, Southbank Centre, Chair of Judges

I think it’s a brave shortlist. We’ve picked books that are daring,  experimental, not at all conventional. This moment that we are living, it has forced each of us to slow down and think about the things we usually take for granted. Valeria Luiselli, Award Winning Author

This shortlist is electric and resonant and absolutely meaningful. It’s a list that each one of us is proud of. Jeet Thayil, Author, Poet & Musician

It was so hard to narrow it down from such an incredibly wonderful long list. Each of them is so expertly crafted and so beautiful.  Jennifer Croft, Translator & Winner of International Booker 2018

It will be just as exciting, just as challenging to narrow this down to the one winner. And I feel that collectively we all believe that each book on this shortlist of six could potentially be a winner. Lucie Campos, Translator, Cultural Director of La Villa Gilet

I had already read two of the titles before the long list was announced, The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Both are excellent reads and very thought provoking. I’m really happy to see that they’ve both made it through to this stage, which means more people are likely to read them.

I have The Adventures of China Iron on my shelf to read, a result of my Year of Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction and subsequent subscription to Charco Press, so I might make that my next read, since its piqued my interest further. It’s about a 19th-century woman who flees a gaucho encampment and takes off with a friend on a journey across the countryside. The book, told in verse, is a parody of one of Argentina’s most important historical texts.

Have you read any of these titles on the shortlist?