There There by Tommy Orange

Cheyenne Native Indian Omar Al Akkar belonging identityThere There by Tommy Orange was lent to me by a friend and was a debut novel that made a significant splash when it was published in 2018. The author is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, born and raised in Oakland, California.

The Egyptian-Canadian novelist Omar Al Akkad who won the 2021 Scottiabank Giller Prize for his refugee tale What Strange Paradise, a book that examines the confluence of war, migration and a sense of settlement, raising questions of indifference and powerlessness, had this to say:

There There is a miraculous achievement, a book that wields ferocious honesty and originality in service of telling a story that needs to be told. This is a novel about what it means to inhabit a land both yours and stolen from you, to simultaneously contend with the weight of belonging and not belonging.”

The novel starts out with a two page very short summary of 12 characters, giving the reader a little information about each, but avoids anything that might be a spoiler in the stories to come. I liked having this summary there and I would go back to it each time I encountered those characters as they developed and as I became aware of what was being given and what was being held back for the reader to discover.

web spider dreamcatcher there there Tommy Orange

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The characterisation was excellent and I especially loved how the author built his female characters.

Jacquie kneeled in front of the minifridge. In her head she heard her mom say, “The spider’s web is a home and a trap.” And even though she never really knew what her mom meant by it, she’d been making it make sense over the years, giving it more meaning than her mom probably ever intended. In this case, Jacquie was the spider, and the minifridge was the web. Home was to drink. To drink was the trap.

There is an edge to the male characters and a tension that builds slowly over time that made their chapters harder to read.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind of history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal.

The title ‘There There‘ has multiple references, the first being the name of a Radiohead song with the refrain, ‘just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean its there’ and a Gertrude Stein quote ‘There is no there there’ referring to the place she’d grown up in that had changed so much, that there of her childhood, the there there, was gone.

The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the America’s, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.

As the novel builds, the connections between the characters and their journeys are revealed.

powwow Tommy Orange There There

Photo by Ron Graham-Becker on Pexels.com

All the characters are Native and the way they identify, their identity, their knowledge or lack of knowledge about who they are and how they are perceived, how they cope, how they live is central to the kaleidoscopic narrative, that builds up to the final chapters, when they will be present at the Big Oakland Powwow festival.

We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewellery, our songs, our dances, our drum.

I enjoyed the character building, the reflections, the cultural insights and getting to know their stories more than the actual plot.

They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside. But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or to just get rid of us.

The first two thirds of the novel was for me a 5 star read, but the ending had me imagining alternative choices. And yet, it could be said that the ending was foretold, that the ancestral memory had carried forward and become so twisted, it turned on itself.

Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t like that.

Further Reading

There There was nominated for the Pultizer Prize (2019) and National Book Award (2018), won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award (2019) and was one of the New YorkTimes 10 best books of the year.

It was almost nominated for the Dublin Literary Award 2020 by 13 different international libraries.

Have you read There There? Share your thoughts below.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

I loved Catherine Chidgey’s lesser known novel The Transformation, more than the award winning debut In a Fishbone Church, so I was curious about and looking forward to her latest novel.

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyThough truthfully, I had been avoiding it due to its 522 pages and subject matter, it does require a commitment. 

After reading and enjoying Marzahn, mon amour also set in Germany, I decided why not just remain in the same location, even though Remote Sympathy takes us back to that tragic period in history.

An incredibly accomplished novel, it is told using four narrative strands in different voices, through letters, diaries, recordings and a community reflection,  backed up but never bogged down by a solid foundation of research and testimony.

The fictional story relates to events during the second world war, around the lives of two German families, the citizens of the town of Weimar and the prisoners of Buchenwald, a camp located just up the hill from the town.

The novel demonstrates the responses of people, in different circumstances, showing how they behave and manage their lives, what they choose to acknowledge and to ignore, the lies they tell themselves and others, faced with the extreme conditions of living under the Third Reich (Nazi Germany).

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

Anatomy nervous system of manThe novel begins with an epistolary narrative of letters written by Doktor Lenard Weber to his daughter Lotte in Frankfurt 1946, after the war has ended. He is telling his daughter how he first first met her mother, his wife Anna, at an exhibition of ‘The Transparent Man’, an installation that showed the inner circuitry of the human body.

The exhibit further inspired him with his own ideas on the therapeutic uses of electricity and the invention of his Sympathetic Vitaliser, a machine that he believed might heal the body of disease.

But it was the eighteenth century writings of John Hunter, the great Scottish surgeon, that sparked the idea for my machine: his theory that the cure as well as the disease could pass through a person by means of remote sympathy; that the energetic power produced in one part of the body could influence another part some distance away.

However, they were living in dangerous times and at the time of their marriage, neither of them knew their family ancestry would drive them apart and that his invention would draw him into the lives of an SS officer and his wife.

But I wanted to tell you about the miracles, Lotte. There are three in this story – I’ll start with the first.

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

SS officer villas BuchenwaldThe second narrative voice comes from the imaginary diary of Frau Greta Hahn, the younger wife of the officer and begins in 1943 as she is packing up their lives in Munich, to move to a villa in Weimar, her husband having taken over as Administrator of the Buchenwald prison camp. He has told her and their young son Karl-Heinz how much they will love it there, being near a forest, a zoo, close to nature.

‘Taking a child to a place like that,’ said my mother.
‘It’s quite safe,’ I told her; ‘We’ll be living well outside the enclosure. We won’t even be able to see it. Apparently the villa’s beautiful – you can come and stay whenever you like.’

An invitation her mother is loathe to take up, even when Greta becomes very unwell.

Greta chooses to live in denial, unlike her friend and neighbour Emmi, who delights in their newfound circumstances and privilege. Her discomfort turns inward and she finds herself in need of a radical medical intervention.

1000 citizens of Weimar

One of the narrative threads is a third person “we” voice, the collective reflections of one thousand citizens of the town of Weimar. This community is proud of their town’s association with a number of past eminent citizens and love to show visitors Goethe’s garden house in the park, with its bee-filled beds of flowers and to speak of others who had called their town home.

The Goethe oak still stands, though, not far from here – the tree beneath which the poet wrote some of his most celebrated verse, and rested with Charlotte von Stein. They say that if it falls, Germany will also perish…

They hear strange noises, they smell the smoke, they see signs of maltreatment, but for every observation that doesn’t fit with their idealised version of home, they have an excuse, an accusation, an alternative perspective, so loathe are they to admit even the thought of what might be going on up the hill. Anyone who shows concern or empathy is scorned by a cacophony of voices.

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

This first person narrative begins in October 1954, a taped, sometimes interrupted interview with the major who is under trial. He talks about the stress of his job, the insistence that it was a work camp, the pressure of budgets, his family and his desire to have a large family. It is the perspective of a man in charge of his responsibilities who refuses to acknowledge any human suffering (except his own).

The lives of the couple and the Doktor become entwined when the major hears of the medical invention and arranges to have him imprisoned in the hope that he may assist his wife. The presence of the Doktor and the young boy Josef who is their housekeeper, challenge her ideas about the so-called ‘criminals’ being held in the camp next door.

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

Though one man represents power and the other is a prisoner, both men possess something that the other desires, they both believe that some kind of salvation might be able to be obtained from the other. Ultimately both will lie, in the hope of getting what they want.

Though ‘remote sympathy’ refers to the healing action of the machine, it is also a theme running through the novel. Greta’s denial of what is occurring over the fence prevents her from confronting the truth, there is little sympathy for something one refuses to see, but she feels it and pays the price, it is literally eating away at her within.

Likewise, her husband obsesses about budgets and cutbacks, without ever acknowledging the human impact, in personal and institutionally narcissistic acts, depriving inmates of basic necessities in order to meet financial pressures. Privately, he succumbs to behaviours that initially alleviate the stress, but will lead to their downfall.

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

It’s a novel of great discomfort and incredulity, in that it imagines the inner lives and perspectives of an officer, his wife and son, their military family neighbours – it focuses on this more so than it narrates the lives of the prisoners, as most of the story and gaze takes place outside the camp, among the privileged, including the Doktor himself, who has found himself in an enviable yet dangerous position.

The use of letters, diaries, an interview and a reflection create a slight distance between the reader and the narrative, we too become observers, avoiding the discomfort of a first person narrative told in the present. Ironically, the effect of that is to avoid a sense of connection or emotional resonance, recreating that uncomfortable, debilitating situation of being a silent, unobserved witness.

It is a thought provoking, disturbing read that highlights the failings and frailties of humankind, the inclination to look away or make up stories to avoid confronting brutal harsh truths about our own inhumanity and the ease with which people lie in pursuit of a desire, refusing to acknowledge their own culpability or wrongdoing, their harm.

And it is a nod too, to the small tangible things that humans find to create meaning, to restore hope, to get through another day, the wooden remains of an oak tree, a photo, pages from a book, a prayer card.

And On It Goes

It occurred to me at the end, that Claire Keegan’s disturbing novella Small Things Like These addresses a similar issue in relation to the collective blindness of community, in the culpability and denial of the Irish (in families, institutions and villages) in their incarceration of young women and the trafficking of their babies, more crimes against humanity that we are only just beginning to come out of dark ignorance about, to be truthfully acknowledged.

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

Remote Sympathy was published in the UK in April 2021 by Europa Editions.

Further Reading

Tanya Hart (daughter of a Holocaust survivor) Interviews Catherine Chidgey

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

Remote Sympathy Germany BuchenwaldCatherine Chidgey is an award-winning and bestselling New Zealand novelist and short-story writer.

Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, won the Betty Trask Award, and was longlisted for the Orange PrizeGolden Deed was Time Out’s Book of the year, a Best Book in the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book in the New York Times Book Review. Her fourth novel, The Wish Child (2016) won the 2017 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the country’s major literary prize and Remote Sympathy (2021) was also shortlisted for the same prize.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing an ARC (Advance Reader Copy)

Dublin Literary Award longlist 2022

The Dublin Literary Award longlist is nominated by public libraries in capital and major cities throughout the world and this year contains 79 titles. Titles are nominated on the basis of ‘high literary merit’ as determined by the nominating library.

Now in its 27th year, this award is the world’s most valuable annual prize for a single work of fiction published in English, worth €100,000 to the winner. Last year, the award was won by Valeria Luiselli for Lost Children Archive. See previous winners here.

Translated Fiction

Nominations this year include 30 novels in translation, spanning 19 languages, with works nominated by 94 libraries from 40 countries across Africa, Europe, Asia, the US & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand. 16 are debut novels. If the winning book has been translated, the author receives €75,000 and the translator receives €25,000.

Of the novels in translation below, I have read two: Fresh Water for Flowers (my review) by French author Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle which made my top 10 fiction reads in 2020, and Voices of the Lost by Lebanese/French author Hoda Barakat, an epistolary novel of letters by the displaced, living in exile.

Dublin Literary Award Novels in Translation

International Judges

The international panel of judges who will select the shortlist and winner, features Dubliner Sinéad Moriarty, a writer and books ambassador for Eason’s Must Reads book club; Alvin Pang, from Singapore, a poet, writer, editor, anthologist, translator and researcher; Cork-born, Clíona Ní Ríordáin who lives in Paris and is a Professor of English at Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle; Professor Emmanuel Dandaura, a creative writer, literary critic, festival curator, scholar, and multiple award winning playwright based in Abuja, Nigeria and Victoria White, a graduate with an M.Litt in English Literature of Trinity College Dublin, who has worked as a writer and journalist with the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner.

The Longlist

The entire list of 79 titles follows, click on the title to read a description of the novel and the comment by the nominating library(s).

I have read 10 of these books (in pink), you can find my reviews next to the book description :

Dublin Literaary Award Longlist 2022

A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie (Jamaican author, based in France)
A Recipe for Daphne by Nektaria Anastasiadou (lives in Istanbul writes in Greek Istanbul dialect, debut)
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (Irish author living in London, debut)
All God’s Children by Aaron Gwyn (Oklahoma author, historical fiction)
Antkind by Charlie Kaufman (American Screenwriter, postmodern, debut)
At Night all Blood is Black by David Diop (Senegalese/Parisian, major award winning war novel)
Barry Squires: Full Tilt by Heather Smith (Newfoundland author living in Ontario, Young Adult)
Bedraggling Grandma with Russian Snow by João Reis (Portuguese writer/philosopher, literary comedy)
Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz (NZ author, debut)
Betty by Tiffany McDaniel (Ohio author/visual artist, coming-of-age novel)
Black Bottom Saints by Alice Randall (Detroit author lives in Nashville, biographical novel)
Brighten the Corner Where You Are by Carol Bruneau (Halifax/canadian author, historical fiction)
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi (Nigerian/Canadian writer/multidisciplinary artist)
Catch the Rabbit by Lana Bastašić (Serb/Croatian author lives in Belgrade, Young Adult)
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma author, debut)
Crossmatch by Carmel Miranda (Sri Lankan author, , social justice novel, debut)
Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear by Matthew Salesses (Asian American author, magic realism, existential)
Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin (French author/screenwriter, literary fiction) (my review here)
Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov (Leningrad/Ukranian author, war novel)
Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan (Irish author, debut)
I is Another: Septology III-V by Jon Fosse (Norwegian author, 2nd of 3 volumes existential novel)

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Russian  poet, essayist, journalist – autofiction)
In Search of a Name by Marjolijn Van Heemstra (Dutch poet, novelist, and playwright –  autofiction)
Indians on Vacationby  by Thomas King (American-Canadian Indigenous author )
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (Colombian/American immigrant novel) (my review here)

Jack by Marilynne Robinson (US author, 4th Gilead novel)
Kin by Miljenko Jergović (Bosnian/Croatian author/journalist, historical novel)
Klara & the Sun by Kazou Ishiguro (British author, science fiction dystopia)
Kraft by Jonas Lüscher (Swiss/German author, literary satire)
Lay Figures by Mark Blagrave (Canadian author, arts community/cultural history, war novel)
Longevity Park by Zhou Daxin (Chinese author, humanitarian novel)
Love in Five Acts by Daniela Krien (German author, Social novel of 1989/90 East Germany)
Low Expectations by Stuart Everly-Wilson (Australian author, black humour suburban novel)
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy (Australian author, environmental change novel) (my review here)
Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (Icelandic author, dark humour, award winning feminist novel)
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (US author, internet irony novel, award winning debut)
Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg indigenous author, response to English/Canadian settler/author Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir Roughing It in the Bush)
October Child by Linda Boström Knausgård (Swedish author, autofiction)
Olive by Emma Gannon (UK author, contemporary fiction)
One Left by Kim Soom (Korean author, war stories of ‘comfort women’ Japanese colonisation)
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (UK author, fantasy) (my review here)
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi & Dr. Yusef Salaam (Haitian/US author & Prison reform activist YA novel)
Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (Mexican author, literary novel set in ’94 Mexico)
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (NZ author, historical fiction, Germany WWII) (my review here)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk (UK author, contemporary fiction)
Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson (Yuwaalaraay/Australian author, generational debut novel)
Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Sri Lankan/NZ author, crime fiction)
Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (Irish author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
The Art of Falling by by Danielle McLaughlin (Irish author, character drive literary fiction, debut novel)
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter  (French/Algerian author, historical fiction) (on the TBR!)
The Bitch by Pilar Quintana (Colombian author, Contemporary fiction)

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (NIgerian author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (British/Australian author, historical fiction) (my review here)
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun (Korean author, feminist, eco-thriller)
The Employees A workplace novel of the 22nd century by Olga Ravn (Danish author, contemporary fiction)
The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović (Slovenia author, multigenerational family saga, historical novel)
The Girl with Braided Hair by Rasha Adly (Egyptian author, historical fiction)
The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (Italian author, contemporary fiction)
The Imago Stage by Karoline Georges (French-Canadian author, contemporary fiction)
The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey (Tasmanian/Australian author, contemporary fiction)
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (British author, Mystery)
The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Indian author, historical fiction)
The Masochist by Katja Perat (Slovenian author/poet, debut novel)
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (US author, science fiction, dystopia)
The Octopus Man by Jasper Gibson (UK author, psychological novel)
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (US author, contemporary novel)
The Prophets by Robert Jones (US author, historical fiction, slavery narrative)
The Survivors by Jane Harper (Australian author, crime fiction)
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi (US author, contemporary fiction) (my review here)
Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera (Brazilian author, contemporary fiction)
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (British author, historical fiction)
Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat (Lebanese/French author, epistolary immigrant novel) (my review here)
What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez (US author, existential fiction)
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (US author writing in Italian, autofiction)
Who is Ma Kemah? by Sianah Nalika DeShield (Liberian author, Romance drama)
Women Dreaming by Salma (Tamil Indian author, contemporary fiction)
Xstabeth by David Keenan (Glasgow/Scottish author, transcendent contemporary fiction)
You, Me & the Sea by Elizabeth Haynes (UK former police intelligence analyst/author, contemporary fiction)
Your Story, My Story by Connie Palmen (Dutch author, historical fiction)

The shortlist will be unveiled on 22nd March and the winner on 19 May 2022.

Have you read any of these novels that you recommend?

Marzhan, mon Amour by Katja Oskamp tr. Jo Heinrich

A totally delightful, kind-hearted, empathetic read.

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan Mon Amour is a memoir-ish novel, collective history and a character study of a group of people living in and around a multi-storied communist-era plattenbau prefab apartment building in the working class quarter of Marzahn, East Berlin, told through the eyes and ears of a woman facing her middle years.

The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.

The narrator is a 45 year old woman (referred to in some articles as the author herself), whose partner is ill, requiring her to abandon her career as a writer and take up something else. She retrains as a chiropodist and joins Tiffy who offers beauty treatments and massage and Flocke who does nails, in a salon at the foot of an eighteen storey building.

Katja Oskamp Peirene Press German literature

Photo XU CHENPexels.com

If the opening paragraph quoted above, sounds melancholy, it represents a turning point.  Leaving the writing studio for the salon, though initially motivated for financial reasons, provides both practitioner and patient an incredible sense of connection, community and perhaps even at some level, healing.

Many of the clients have lived there since the housing estate was built forty years ago,

…now bravely coming to the ends of their lives with their walking frames, their oxygen cylinders and their state pensions, sometimes spending whole days not speaking to another soul, pouring out their famished hearts to us when they come to the salon, gratefully absorbing every touch, happy for once not to be treated like imbeciles…

Fed up with rejections, she becomes part of this small team and larger community, seeing her regular clients, getting to know them, listening, observing, caring for them, being part of the fabric of a unique, idiosyncratic neighbourhood.

Marzhan mon amour chiropodist chiropody Katja Oskamp

Photo Nico BeckerPexels.com

In each chapter, we meet another client, another character, a life, shared in an engaging and often humorous way, as she participates in the ritual of what is something between a pedicure and reflexology, an hour long treatment of the feet, listening to or being silent with the person who occupies that quiet hour, a temporary escape from their day to day lives.

A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of these housing estates, the connections created between the three women and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold.

And that one day of the year, when they close the salon and go together on an outing, described in a way that will make you almost feel like you are experiencing it yourself.

Superbly translated, Jo Heinrich, had this to say about the experience:

There are poignant sections, but it’s an ultimately life-affirming book; it’s funny and warm-hearted, the characters (mostly) feel like good friends and Katja’s writing is so well crafted that it was always a joy to retreat to.

I absolutely loved it, Katja Oskam has penned an ode to an unappreciated, disparaged area, its ageing population and the power of touch. If you’re looking for an uplifting, life-affirming afternoon read, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Katja Oskamp, Author

German literature in translation ChiropodistKatja Oskamp was born in 1970 in Leipzig and grew up in Berlin. After completing her degree in theatre studies, she worked as a playwright at the Volkstheater Rostock and went on to study at the German Literature Institute in Leipzig.

Her debut collection of stories Halbschwimmer was published in 2003. In 2007 she published her first novel Die Staubfängerin. Her book Marzahn, Mon Amour, published by Hanser with the subtitle ‘Stories of a Chiropodist’, was selected for the ‘Berlin Reads One Book’ campaign and thus literally became the talk of the town.

She is a member of PEN Centre Germany. Marzahn, Mon Amour is her first work to be translated into English, published in Feb 2022 by Peirene Press.

Further Reading

Review: World Literature Today by Catherine Venner

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Peirene Press for the Advance Review Copy.

A Sister’s Story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio tr. Ann Goldstein

We first encountered the two sisters in an earlier novel, A Girl Returned. At the time they first met, the elder, the narrator, was being returned to her parents without explanation, 13 years after having been adopted and raised by another couple.

She had given me to another woman to bring up, and yet I had remained her daughter. I will be forever.

Though raised in different neighbourhoods, circumstances, economic conditions and under extremely different parenting, from the moment Adriana first encountered her previously unknown older sister, she became attached, fiercely. Of their mother, our narrator had mixed feelings.

She roused in me an inextricable knot of tenderness and revulsion…

My mother occupied me inside, true and fierce. She remained in large part unknown: I never penetrated the mystery of her hidden affection.

Ann Goldstein Italian literatureIn A Sister’s Story, we encounter them again; the novel opens with the recall of a graduation celebration at Piero’s parent’s country home. Again the novel is narrated by the unnamed elder sister.

I have a photograph of the two of us, in love, looking at each other, Piero with the laurel on his head, eyes of devotion. At the edge of the frame Adriana appears: she entered the shot at the last moment, and her image is blurry, her hair draws a brown wake. She has never been tactful, she interjects herself into everything that has to do with me as if it were hers, including Piero. For her he wasn’t very different from a brother, but nice. My sister is laughing blithely at the lens, ignorant of what was to come for us.

As the narrative returns to the present, the elder sister awakes in a hotel, having travelled overnight from Grenoble back to Italy, confused memories interrupt her thoughts, the result of a telephone call she received that set her out on this journey.

In a now familiar style, unique to Donatella Di Pietrantiono, the present is a mystery, we don’t know why she has returned to where her family came from or what the phone call was about, there is much to fill in since she left. It is clear she has cut ties with many people from her past; the phone call reluctantly yet urgently drawing her back.

Related but moulded by different values and role models the sisters held different aspirations and expectations and behaved nothing like each other. They are deeply connected strangers.

As children we were inseparable, then we had learned to lose each other. She could leave me without news of herself for months, but it had never been this long. She seemed to obey a nomadic instinct: when a place no longer suited her, she abandoned it. Every so often our mother said to her: you’re a Gypsy. Later I was, too, in another way.

photo of teenage girls sitting on the pavement

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The last time the sister’s saw each other, Adriana arrived on her doorstep with a baby, named after their belated brother Vincenzo, denying she was in any danger.

The novel, while moving towards the revelation of the telephone call, explores the complicated relationship between sisters who’ve been formed and wired differently, their desire and struggle to be around each other, their bond and indifference, their separate struggles and opposite ways of dealing with them.

I don’t know when I lost her, where our intimacy was stranded. I can’t trace it to a precise moment, a decisive episode, a quarrel. We only surrendered to distance, or maybe it was what we were secretly looking for: repose, shaking each other off.

It’s an enjoyable read, enhanced by having read the earlier story;  while the first novel was compelling and urgent in a way that made me not want to put it down, the sequel was reflective and mysterious. I enjoyed seeing how the sisters evolved into adulthood in such different ways, trying to hold on to their connection, challenged by the ongoing effect of those formative years.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 2: Top 10 Fiction

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAs mentioned in my previous post, my One Outstanding Read of The Year for 2021 was Maryam Diener’s Beyond Black There is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad (2020), a work of fiction written in the first person, a novella that stays true to the life of Iranian poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad.

Heartfelt, illuminating, inspiring, a beautiful telling of an exceptional life.

Top 10 Fiction 2021

If you’ve seen that post, you’ll have seen that I read books from around the world, so no surprise that my Top 10 Fiction reads come from 9 different countries. In no particular order, but grouped thematically, here are my favourite fiction reads of the year, click on the title to read the original review:

Native Wisdom and Legacy from the Antipodes

Maori Literature Modern Classic1. Potiki by Patricia Grace (NZ) (1986) – First published in New Zealand 35 years ago and now published in the UK as a Penguin modern classic, the timeless narrative of Potiki is a demonstration of the clash of cultures, of the native against the coloniser, of the attempt to maintain a way of life that is perceived as backward against the encroachment of a capitalist driven greed that is willing to use whatever means necessary to get what it wants.

Through thoughtful character creation and storytelling around Hemi and Roimata’s tangata whenua (family) and their circumstance, it infiltrates the cultural differences and attitudes that exist and how the actions of those in power with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

A tour de force, I absolutely loved it. A classic indeed.

Indigenous Literature Aboriginal Australia2. The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) (2019) – Coincidentally, shortly after reading Potiki, I picked up the award winning Australian contemporary novel The Yield, which tells a layered story of the Aboriginal connection to the land, their language and customs.

A story told in three voices and narrative perspectives, Grandfather Poppy’s voice speaks from the past, sharing words in a dictionary he was creating. Threaded throughout the text, his words preserve a culture, they are evidence that a civilisation existed, one that was threatened with extinction. His granddaughter has returned from abroad and is trying to save the family from eviction. And the Reverend’s letters from the 1800’s which shed light on the past.

African Appreciation and Perspective

Colonialism Capitalism Envirnmental Pollution Africa Literary fiction3. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon/US) (2021) – With a not dissimilar theme, set in an(y) African village, Mbue’s characters are named after actual cities and towns. It is the 70’s and the inhabitants are suffering ill health from the effect of pollution of the water table, so they decide to address the local leadership.

The story, narrated through different members of Thula’s family and the collective “we” of her friends, follows each generation’s attempt to seek justice and retribution, and the increasing complexity of resistance, as the narrative moves from the past up to the present.

An allegory for all those without political influence living with the damaging effects of the disrespect of the land, the Earth, of not seeing her as the Mother or our connection to her; it’s an absolute must read, sure to become a classic.

The First Woman Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi4. The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda/UK) (2020) – this was hotly anticipated given her debut novel Kintu was my One Outstanding Read of 2018 and equally brilliant in its character formation and storytelling. Definitely a favourite author.

Set in Uganda, it is the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, as she becomes aware of a mystery surrounding her birth. Of a silence. Her grandmother tells her she has “the original state” of the first woman in her, part of the enigma she will come to understand.

As with Kintu, Makumbi steps beyond colonial influence, almost entirely removing it, to tell an authentic, far reaching story of a primeval culture and its women. In the US, it’s titled A Girl Is A Body of Water.

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UK5. The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia (Nigeria/Canada) (2021) – Set in Nigeria, as the story begins we meet two women Nwabulu and Julie, who will pass days imprisoned together waiting for their families to respond to a ransom request.

The alternating narrative returns us to the beginning, to their separate, contrasting lives, that lead them to this drama, while exploring the influence and impact on them and all women, of Nigerian society’s elevation in importance of “the son of the house“.

It is a clever, very human exploration of class, family lives disrupted, parental influence, the tenacity and resilience of women, of their ‘survive and thrive’ instinct as they navigate a man’s world.

A riveting and insightful read, and an exceptional new literary voice.

Irish Reflection and Resistance to Conformity

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Miterary Fiction6. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2015) – This was my very first book of the year, and one I chose because I adore and still think about and implore people to read her work of nonfiction Handiwork, the first of her books I read in 2020. I was curious to see what Baume’s fiction would be like and what a joyful and unique encounter it has been.

We meet a hermit-like 57 year old man (except I read the whole novel intermittently imagining I’m reading/seeing through the eyes of a character more like Baume) and OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog who he has taken in, who he is thinking and talking to, in this second person “you” narrative. As we get to know him, we learn how out of character that was and the trouble it has caused, while following his road-trip attempt to flee the situation and himself (+ dog) altogether.

It’s a slow unravelling, beautifully written and cleverly constructed journey, with a surprise twist, that was pure joy to read. Reflective, poignant and daring, it’s one you’ll keep thinking about long after reading.

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist7. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2017) – I can’t help it, she’s become one my current favourite authors, so I end the year reading the 2nd novel by Sara Baume and again have an impression of reading autofiction. 

26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and moves home, then a week later into her grandmother’s abandoned, neglected (for sale) home. She’s taking time out, but rather than mope about, takes charge of her situation, starts an art project and tests herself on works on art, remembering.

It’s a novel about a young woman in a transition, learning something about herself, with the shadow and memory of her grandmother over her, healing from life. Extraordinary.

And very pleased to hear a new novel Seven Steeples is due out in April 2022!

Women in Translation

The year wouldn’t be complete without fiction from other countries in translation and though I didn’t read during August’s WIT Month, I did still read a few titles throughout the year and these three really stood out as firm favourites. And not surprisingly, they’re from my three favourite independent presses!

Women Wait for Their Men & The Empty Nest Unhinges Her

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve8. Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (France) tr. Adriana Hunter (WWI) (2021) Peirene Press an utterly compelling novella, set in the closing days of WWI that delves into the lives and perspective of a young woman Jeanne and her daughter as they wait for her injured husband to return. He’s been rehabilitating in a facial injury hospital and has forbidden her to visit. Now he returns and we witness the change.

Unlike many war stories, this is not about the active participants, but the unseen, unheard, rarely if ever spoken about, aftermath. Written with profound empathy and courage, it’s intense, riveting and unforgettable.

Women in Translation Mexico9. Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott (Mexico) (2019) Charco Press – this totally took me by surprise, languishing on my shelf not realising the playful literary gem that lay within. 

 Inspired by Lozano’s contemplation of The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – it’s the circular loop of the anti-hero story, the inner journey of the one who waits; revealing the way that contemplation and observation reveal understanding and epiphanies. In her notebooks she observes the familiar and unfamiliar around her, sees patterns, imagines connections, dreams and catastrophises. Wild is the Wind.

Odysseus, he of the many twists and turns. Penelope, she of the many twists and turns without moving from her armchair. Weaving the notebook by day, unravelling it by night.

Pure fun, slightly quirky, lightheartedly philosophical, many unexpected laugh out loud moments. Loved it!

psychological thriller film Italian10. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italy) (2008) Europa EditionsLast but certainly not least, the only Ferrante novel I had not yet read, and the shortest (so if you haven’t ventured yet perhaps try this before the My Brilliant Friend tetralogy). With the film due to hit the screens, I wanted to read it before being tempted to watch.

For me, The Days of Abandonment was Ferrante’s most intense reading experience, while this novel lulls the reader into a deliciously, false sense of anticipated joy, especially for any women approaching the empty nest era of life and dreaming of an idyllic Mediterranean beach holiday. It’s a story that zooms in on another ‘moment in life’, transition, where freedom and longing clash with frustration and resentment, as subconscious memories (and perhaps unbalanced hormones) project themselves onto the present, inappropriately, dangerously.

It’s both reminiscent and inviting, until it’s disrupted, Ferrante writing is so evocative in creating a sense of place and mood, and getting into the dark shadow mind of her characters.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the above, or share any of your own favourite reads of 2021 in the comments below!

Next up Top Non Fiction Reads of 2021…

 

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer who writes atmospheric, slice of life novellas on an aspect of Irish life. I read her novella Foster some years ago, a touching and eerie story of a girl caught between two sets of parents, that is unsettling, though never quite reveals the source of this tension, that is left somewhat to the reader’s imagination.

Small Things Like These is set in an Irish town in 1985 in the lead up Christmas. Bill Furlong, a father of five daughters is a coal merchant, raised by a single mother who was a housemaid for an upper class woman who allowed her to keep her son with her. The story recalls an event that occurs at the nearby convent, when Bill is making his deliveries and we observe different members of the community’s reaction to that.

Irish literature Magdalen laundries shaming mothers religious oppressionI admire the way Claire Keegan creates atmosphere and a sense of place, I could well imagine the small Irish town they lived, the cold, the workplace, the river – although I had to keep reminding myself it was the 1980’s and that there was electricity. Bill’s deliveries of wood and coal and the way the women made it feel like a much earlier era, though I don’t doubt it was freezing then as few could afford to heat their homes by other means.

The character of Bill Furlong was interesting and held potential, both due to the unique circumstance of his upbringing, which made him an empathetic character, and the fact that his wife and other women in the community had a different opinion or perception to his, regarding the situation that he will be confronted with.

The blow was cheap but it was the first he’d heard from her, in all their years together. Something small and hard gathered in his throat then which he tried but felt unable to say or swallow. In the finish, he could neither swallow it down nor find any words to ease what had come between them.

magdalen laundries adoption Ireland patriarchy

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Furlong was one of very, very few babies born to a woman out out wedlock who got to stay with his mother, due to the generosity of his mother’s employer.

When we meet him he is a grown married man with daughters, with his own business, though still struggling and not able to imagine a time when that might change. There is something in him that is unsettled despite his circumstance, something slowly revealed that he seeks liberation from.

On making a delivery to the nearby convent, where his daughters are at school, he becomes aware of the fact there are other young women there, who work with the nuns and provide the community with laundry services.

It is a subtly consciousness raising novel yet somewhat ironic and convenient to this reader that the empathetic character is a working man with daughters. While the story conveniently sidesteps the significant issues, it takes a provocative stance in choosing to instill empathy in a character, who represents generally, the one we never look at – the boy involved, the father or brother who punished their daughter/sister, or the decision maker’s of the institutions (church and state) that carried out the punishment of these young women. In this respect, the premise of the novel feels totally unrealistic, a Disney-like fantasy. The reality is that it is very likely no one ever did was Bill purports to do here.

Claire Keegan Small Things Like These Men With EmpathyIt made me recall another character, Albert, from the film Made in Dagenham, who was initially the only man who supported a group of female factory workers fighting for equal rights at the Ford Dagenham factory in 1968 – the reason he supported them was because he had been raised by a single mother – perhaps there is something to be said for the development of a deeper empathy in men who’ve been raised by single mothers.

One of the other things that did stand out was the prevalence and contribution of community gossip to the development of judgement and insinuation. He is warned by the woman running the café where his men eat lunch.

‘Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?’

Those that listen to and contribute to gossip are of a different kind than those who respond to an injustice that was right in front of them, despite it being none of their business. Bill was of the latter.

Overall, I felt like this novel had only just begun and then it was over; it left me with too many questions and felt like it was set in a time that was decades earlier than the 1985. It read more like a promising beginning, than a complete novel. Deliberately provocative perhaps.

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

Warning: Likely to trigger adoptees or any woman coerced by society, to give up a child to adoption.

What Were The Magdalene Laundries?

A Campaign for Justice Mothers AdopteesFrom the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1996, at least 10,000 girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland’s Magdalene Institutions. These were carceral, punitive institutions that ran commercial and for-profit businesses primarily laundries and needlework.

After 1922, the Magdalene Laundries were operated by four religious orders (The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters) in ten different locations around Ireland. The last Magdalene Laundry ceased operating on 25th October, 1996.

The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included those who were perceived to be ‘promiscuous’, unmarried mothers, the daughters of unmarried mothers, those who were considered a burden on their families or the State, those who had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State.

Confined for decades on end – and isolated from their families and society at large – many of these women became institutionalised over time and therefore became utterly dependent on the relevant convents and were thus unfit to re-enter society unaided.

Further Reading

Guardian Interview: The acclaimed Irish writer on writing short works, the Magdalene Laundries and her new hobby, horse training by Claire Armistead

Article: How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves

Book: Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign For Justice by Katherine O’Donnell – Sept 2021 – a devastating and vital account of life behind the high walls of Ireland’s institutions, featuring original research and testimony + the continued campaign for justice for victims and to advance public knowledge and research.

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson

Epistolary Treasures

Jan Carson Author Northern Ireland FictionI just love the concept of these works of flash fiction, postcard size stories, that have a geographic connection to a street or location in Northern Ireland, that originated as a story written on the back of a postcard – an alternative restriction to the usual one when writing flash fiction, of keeping it to 100 -150 words – and that the postcard was both sent and retained, a gift and an accumulated collection.

This not quite Ireland proper/ is not the Mainland/ is certainly not Europe in the Continental sense.

When I first picked it up, a little while ago now, I looked at the contents and went to read a few entries from the locations that were familiar to me, Belfast International Airport, Newtownards Road, Holywood Road, Linenhall Street, Holywood, Ormeau Road, but of course that was me thinking of my own story, so it didn’t make much sense. I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

Removing Expectations

So now I read it again, this time from the beginning and just allow it to tell me its own story, its bite sized exercise in writing, the awakening of imagination, the sharing of the craft, its way of thinking of others while being in the act of creation.

The book is thoughtfully illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. You can view the images from the book via the link provided through his name. They are truly evocative.

Postcard Stories Jan Carson Ireland

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I read, am entertained and wonder what it must have been like to receive one of these. Is there a connection between the story and the recipient, is it random, did they reply, did they understand the motivation of the author, did it matter? How did you get to be one of the recipients? Does she really have that many friends whose addresses she knows, a database perhaps, or is the postcard sending a fiction in itself?

Here she is practicing using the second person narrative voice from Week 6, February 5th, 2015, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast from a postcard sent to Claire Buswell.

When you were seven years old you threw a dart at a black-haired girl, running away in the garden. The dart lodged and stuck just below her shoulder blade. She fell forward in the grass. The flight on the dart was red and black and white. These were also the colours of the duvet cover in your parents’ bedroom. This was the 80’s. Afterwards the dart came away clean as needles. No harm done. You did not tell and neither did she.

I’ve read Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters, I know she is a fan of absurdist fiction. I also know that she works in the community arts sector and has taught creative writing skills to people to help build empathy, using storytelling to show how we can imagine being in the shoes of another. I remember being reassured by this knowledge, because the protagonist in her novel completely lacks empathy, and that is a frightening thing.

Cafés and Markets, Happiness or Disappointment

Susan Picken receives Week 45’s November story from Victoria Square, Belfast:

‘If your drink doesn’t make you happy, we’ll make you another,’ I read aloud, pointing to the sign above the barista’s head. It’s been there, right behind him, with the toastie machine and the coffee syrups, for so long now that he’s forgotten all about it.

melancholy free coffee happy unhappyIt turns out there are only so many free coffees a person can drink before realising a hot beverage cannot cure loneliness, grief or melancholy.

The collection ends in Week 52  at St George’s Market on a sorrowful note, that makes me think I ought to take my own aromatherapy potions to the Christmas market, offering an antidote to the melancholy nature of some of this population.

Every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles…She stocks any number of different disappointments: the disappointment of an unsupportive parent, the disappointment of a homely child, the disappointment of being alone or not nearly alone enough, the disappointment of cats, good wine, box sets and religion, the dry disappointment of Christmas Day evening which is easily the most popular product on her stall.

I have Postcard Stories 2, so I will be hoping that perhaps, as we wander more streets in the year that followed Postcard Stories, there might be reason for more optimism and perhaps we might learn how to get on the postcard list.

Further Reading

Irish Times Interview: Jan Carson – girl from the north country by Ruth McKee

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

The most recent book The Last Resort, a collection of ten linked short stories set in a fictional caravan park, was published in April 2021.

Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She runs arts projects and events with older people especially those living with dementia.

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella CarvalhoPexels.com

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki