Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Call It Baumish Prose

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

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

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

The Irony – A Misanthropic Romantic Encounter

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

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

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

It Was Windy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hybrid Poet & Spiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended.

Sara Baume, Author

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

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

Further Reading

My review of Handiwork (Creative Nonfiction)

My review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither

My review of A Line Made By Walking

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

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima tr. Geraldine Harcourt

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

Such a thought provoking novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child of Fortune Dreams Ice Mountain Yuko

Photo Simon Berger @ Pexels.com

Koko begins to feel unwell.

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

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

Koko suspects she may be pregnant. She ignores it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuko Tsushima, Author

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Nothing Free About It

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

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

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

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

A Housewife Acting on a Crazy Impulse. Really?

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

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

Colette, Not Yet Colette

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

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

Colette Reading

              The Other Colette

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

Colette starts skipping school.

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

Honesty versus Secrecy

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

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

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

Coming Full Circle

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

Tessa Hadley, Author

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

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

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

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

Top Reads of 2022

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

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

An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire

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

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

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

Books Read By Country

Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination

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

Books Read by Genre

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

One Outstanding Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland Mark Devenport, writes about a region hanging in the balance, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; while Lyra McKee’s gut-wrenching essay Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies investigates the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booker International Prize Shortlist 2022

In my recent absence, six translated novels have been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize including book from six languages: Korean, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi and Polish.

Wildly original works of literature that will captivate readers, this year’s shortlisted books all explore trauma, whether on an individual or societal level. 

Translated literary fiction

Summaries of the novels are below, with the judges comments. The winners of the prize will be named on 26 May 2022.

The Shortlist

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) Translated by Sam Bett, David Boyd

HeavenTold through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying, Heaven is a haunting novel of the threat of violence that can stalk our teenage years.

Instead of putting up resistance, the boy suffers in complete resignation. His sole ally is a girl classmate, similarly outcast and preyed upon by the bullies. They meet in secret to take solace in each other’s company, unaware that their relationship has not gone unnoticed by their tormentors.

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

An intense, claustrophobic novel, Heaven uses its tale of middle school bullying to enact
Nietzsche’s critique of morality.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) Translated by Frances Riddle

Elena KnowsA unique story that interweaves crime fiction with intimate tales of morality and the search for individual freedom.

After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit.

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

“Claudia Piñeiro’s short and deeply felt novel, evokes the loneliness of ageing and the uncertainty of memory. Frances Riddle’s brutal yet sparing translation suggests the shadows and light of noir without ever eclipsing the very human tragedy at the core of the book.”

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

A New NameJon Fosse delivers both a transcendent exploration of the human condition and a radically ‘other’ reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic, and utterly unique.

Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone on the coast of Norway. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions.

Written in melodious and hypnotic ‘slow prose’, this is the final instalment of Fosse’s Septology, the major prose work by ‘the Beckett of the twenty-first century’ (Le Monde).

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (India) Translated by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of SandAn urgent yet engaging protest against the destructive impact of borders, whether between religions, countries or genders.

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

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

A loud and irresistible novel.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) Translated by Jennifer Croft

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

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

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (South Korea) Translated by Anton Hur

Cursed BunnyBora Chung presents a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction.
Korean author Bora Chung uses elements of the fantastic and surreal to address the very real horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society. Anton Hur’s translation skilfully captures the way Chung’s prose effortlessly glides from the terrifying to the wryly humorous. Winner of a PEN/Haim Grant.

While the stories in Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung blend elements of horror, fantasy and the surreal, each is viscerally rooted in the real fears and pressures of everyday life.

The China Factory by Mary Costello

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

Threads of Inspiration

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

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

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

Capturing a Voice

The China Factory Mary Costello

Photo by cottonbro Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

dreamy woman with crossed legs sitting near window

Photo by L.SummerPexels.com

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

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

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

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

Drudgery, Dignity and Denial

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

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

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

And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.

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

all have this falling-sickness none withstands.

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

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

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

Mary Costello, Author

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

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

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

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Polish Literature Novel Prize Winner Blake AstrologySomewhere on a plateau above a small forested village in Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic, lives Janina, except she doesn’t like that name, she insists on being called Mrs Duszejko.

An astute observer of things around her, she is more of a winter type, has knowledge and interest in the influence of planets and houses, likes to translate Blake’s poetry and read his letters, has great respect for all sentient beings, except perhaps those who hunt Animals for sport and take joy in it.

The novel opens as her neighbour whom she refers to as Oddball knocks on her door very early one morning to inform her that their mutual neighbour Big Foot is dead. The two visit his home and do what they thing good neighbours should do, respectfully arranging the contorted corpse, though Oddball’s son Black Coat (a policeman) later tells them off for moving the body.

Our Feet Connect Us

Mrs Duszejko observing his feet:

They astonished me. I have always regarded feet as the most intimate and personal part of our bodies, and not the genitals, not the heart, or even the brain, organs of no great significance that are too highly valued. It is in the feet that all knowledge of Mankind lies hidden; the body sends them a weighty sense of who we really are and how we relate to the earth. It’s in the touch of the earth, at its point of contact with  the body that the whole mystery is located – the fact that we’re built of elements of matter, while also being alien to it, separated from it. The feet – these are our plugs into the socket. And now those naked feet gave me proof that his origin was different. He couldn’t have been human. He must have been some sort of nameless form, one of the kind that – as Blake tells us – melts metal into infinity, changes order into chaos.

Referring to her Little Girls draws attention to another mystery, and while she doesn’t share the story of what happened to them initially, they are an absent presence throughout the story, a conundrum that will eventually be revealed, including its connection to the death of the neighbour.

brown deer under trees

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

Described as reclusive, unconventional and eccentric, she might well be the most sane person in the village, certainly she is one of the more interesting. An intellectual and a mystic, a lover of nature, philosophy, astrological influences, animals and wildlife, surviving in a village that reveres hunting, an activity undertaken by the Commandant of Police, the local priest, the village President and other dominating types puts her in the firm minority – despite her isolation, she finds her circle within the community.

Unhappy at the way the authorities are conducting their investigation, convinced by clues she has observed – ominous deer tracks – she writes to the police bringing their attention to her theory of revenge by wildlife against the actions of hunting humans. And recalls her earlier reports to them about Big Foot’s poaching activities. Death brings another element to her theory, the effect of astrological shifts and patterns.

I could also tell that he didn’t understand everything that I was saying – firstly for the obvious reason that I was using arguments alien to him, but also because he had a limited vocabulary. And that he was the type of Person who despises anything he can’t understand.

A Community of Soul Mates

A sow on trial in at Lavegny in 1457 from The Book of DaysDizzy, a former student, now her 30 year old friend, helps with the Blake translations, though is unconvinced by some of her  theories concerning astrology and the revenge of animals, bolstered by her having discovered real animal trials, which peaked in 14th to 16th century Europe.

It was believed by many medieval authorities that ‘crimes’ committed by animals were the devil’s work and letting them go unpunished would provide an opportunity for the devil to take over human affairs.

Dizzy, who’s prone to effusive digressions on the topic of Blake’s symbolism, has never shared my passion for Astrology. That’s because he was born too late. His generation has Pluto in Libra, which somewhat weakens their vigilance. And they think they can balance hell. I don’t believe they will manage it.

Drive Your PLow Over the Bones of the Dead Olga Tokarczuk PolishWhen he challenges her for going around telling people about those Animals, concerned for her reputation, she  is outraged.

‘One has to tell people what to think. There’s no alternative. Otherwise someone else will do it.’

Another of the villagers is the young woman who runs a vintage clothing shop, a place Janina discovered one day when she was frozen through and hungry. The characters she befriends represent hope in an otherwise worrisome society.

The whole thing was a mixture of socialist café, dry cleaner’s and fancy-dress costume hire. And in the middle of it all was Good News.

That’s what I called her.  This name suggested itself irresistibly, at first sight.

Mrs Duszejko (Janina) is fed up and no longer young, she says what she thinks and doesn’t care what others think of her. She reads the signs and takes action. She’s an unexpected delightfully, transgressive heroine, of her own existential thriller.

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

Further Reading

The Guardian: Interview – Olga Tokarczuk: ‘I was very naive. I thought Poland would be able to discuss the dark areas of our history’ by Claire Armitstead

Olga Tokarczuk, Author

Polish literature Nobel Prize LiteratureOlga Tokarczuk is an Aquarian, a Psychologist and Jungian expert, a Polish essayist and author of nine novels, three short story collections and her work has been translated into forty-five languages.

Her novel Flights won the 2018 International Booker Prize, in Jennifer Croft’s translation. In 2019, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Primeval and Other Times (1996) was her first work translated into English in 2010.

Her most recently translated novel, written over six years, The Books of Jacob (2014) was published in English in Nov 2021.

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.

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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…

 

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Healing Women magic realism slavery freedomI loved how this historical novel focuses on the lives of these women, Rue her mother May Belle and grandmother Ma Doe and the community within which they live, without allowing the narrative to stray over too far into the lives and homes of those who diminished their lives.

It is set in two time periods, just before and just after the civil war, so Freedomtime from 1867 onward Surrender 1865 and Slaverytime from May 1861. In particular it inhabits the Reconstruction era, the brief hollow of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, ten years that would have been strangely bittersweet, fraught with disbelief.

Mostly the narrative revolves around Rue who wasn’t taught her mother’s skills yet learned them all the same. Healing and conjuring, midwifery and herbal remedies. Setting things to right.

Other slavefolk got hired out for their washing, for their carpentering, for their fine greasy cooking. Miss May Belle was hired for her hoodooing.

“Hoodoo,” Miss May Belle used to say “is black folks currency.”

She had admitted only once, to Rue, in confidence: “The thing about curses is that you can know who you’ve wronged the most by who you fear has the notion to curse you.”

By shifting the narrative back and forth to tell the story, the reader, like Rue is kept in suspense regarding some of the terrible wrongs done to people, some on the connections and relations between people.

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

In the slave masters house there is a young girl Varnia, who is Rue’s age and her playmate. Then there is Sarah, also of similar age, who gives birth in the opening pages to a baby born enveiled in a caul, which provokes people’s superstitions. Rue develops a connection to this baby who seems other worldly.

When the communities babies begin to suffer from a mysterious illness, they begin to distrust her and her methods and rely instead on a charistmatic travelling preacher Bruh Abel, whom Rue has strange feelings for. She hatches a plan to try and bring favour back her way, but it backfires on her and she will seek his help to restore their faith.

She’d known him for what he was then. He was a clear-water cure sweetened with nothing more than clever words a con man’s type of conjure.

Conjure Women CovrIn May Belle’s time, one of the ways to effect a conjure was to make a doll that bore a resemblance to the person and if possible to access strands of hair to entwine with whatever material was used. Varina has porcelain dolls that Rue admires and is envious of, when she discovers her mother is making a doll that faintly resembles her, she pretends not to notice she has discovered it, and will mask even further her disappointment when she misreads its purpose.

Reading this story, made me reflect on how many historical fiction narratives of slavery, civil war and early freedom are told from within the Household and the fields. And how as readers we often come to expect that. How refreshing that Afia Atakora stays with these women and tells their stories from a different vantage point, not needing to take us into the politics of their war, or the lives or agenda of those in the House.

There is one scene where Rue is present for an event that takes place inside the Master’s house and it is telling that she observes the entire scene from within a locked box, that she can lift only slightly, therefore only seeing a sliver of what takes place.

Atakora does the same to her readers, when it comes to observing slave masters and mistresses and white people in her narrative. They never take centre stage even if they still maintain the ability to commit gross acts that impact the lives of her characters.

“We tend to paint slavery in America in broad strokes. There are these pervasive singular images of overseers and cotton fields. We think of it in terms of Amendments and Proclamations and Battles. But it’s a vast 200+ years of history filled with nuance and complexity and no two experiences could have possibly been alike.”

It’s a novel that demonstrates the effect of conditioning, regardless of changed circumstances, the legacy of bondage and the aspects of genetic inheritance that refuse to be extinguished through the will of others.

“Rue-baby” Miss May Belle would’ve said, “there ain’t no easier lie to tell folks than the one they wanna believe.”

A thought provoking read that shakes up conventional storytelling and vantage points.

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

Afia Atakora was born in the United Kingdom and raised in New Jersey, where she now lives. She graduated from New York University and has an MFA from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the De Alba Fellowship. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers.

 

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

Winter Flowers Angélique VilleneuveWinter Flowers (Les Fleurs d’hiver) by Angélique Villenueuve, translated by Adriana Hunter is published Oct 7 by Peirene Press, a boutique publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary European novellas that can be read in an afternoon.

Review

A young woman in 1918 Paris is considered one of the fortunate, when her husband returns from war injured. Wearing a face mask. He lived. He is not the same man who left. When Toussaint Caillet was transferred from the department of facial injuries at Val-de-Grâce military hospital, he sent Jeanne a one sentence note ordering her not to visit.

They have a 3 year old daughter who only knows her father by the portrait of the soldier on the wall of their cramped quarters. She has two fathers, the Papa who left and the man who returned.

Of course she’d expected that the war and his injury would have changed him, but she’d never tried to imagine the scale or even the nature of this disruption. The letter he’d sent her in January 1917 had been a dark window and, once she’d stomached the pain of it, she’d made a point of not reopening it.

Jeanne works from home making artificial flowers, she is trying to be patient and understanding, but her husband’s refusal to engage inflames her.

Sitting at her table, Jeanne senses nothing. It has to be said that the huge red dahlias, whose wound-like qualities are accentuated by the light of the oil lamp, completely absorb her in a swirl of scarlet. The repeated gestures gradually steal over her body, leaving no part of her in which she can drift. When Jeanne sleeps or closes her eyes, when she’s most absent in mind or body, she knows this much: the flowers are still there and always will be.

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

When he finally leaves the room, she follows him. It is not the first time.

Her neighbour Sidonie, a seamstress, has lost almost everything, they support each other. She is about to be tipped over the edge.

Winter Flowers exquisitely renders a situation many lived through and few understood. The silence and destruction of men who survived, who came back traumatised. Who never spoke of what happened. Who may or may not have healed. And the women who stood beside them, who persevered, who sacrificed and learned to live with the reality of what they too had lost.

Like all women whose husbands or sons had been mobilised, though, she’d heard countless stories about men’s homecomings. Poor women. Those who entrusted a sheep to their country  were given back a lion. Someone who’d sent out a young lad was said to have come home an old man, or mad.

And there were so many, Jeanne was well aware, who would never come home at all.

Despite the terrible events and circumstances, the hopes and fears, the woman too must participate and receive the words of recognition from those in power, despite their grief, unable to express their truth.

The mayor’s words are incomprehensible they come and go and sting. Jeanne doesn’t know whether it’s up to them, the women here, these workwomen, to tame the words and arrange them in the correct order, whether it’s really to them that they’re addressed. They flow too quickly. They fly too high. There are too many of them.

Thunder and fire, men freezing and caked in mud and half poisoned by noxious gases, heroes, brothers, love, defeat, hope, victory, history peace, blood, martyrs, children. His speech is riddled with these impassioned fragments. And, just like the battles experienced by those who are now dead, these official words accumulate terrifyingly, chaotically over the gathering. It’s a bombardment, and Jeanne, busy as she is shoring up her neighbour’s faltering frame, struggles to withstand its fire for more than a few minutes.

It is a lament, a form of consolation, a living mourning, of how a family rebuilds itself after an event that has wreaked devastation on them all. Day by day, acknowledging the small wins, with patience, forgiveness, empathy and imagination.

I loved it.  A heart-rending, visceral account of loss and the accompanying overwhelm of steadfast perseverance. The tidal-like edge of madness and the surreal act of continuing despite it. Women.

Every few pages, I marked passages, highlighted sentences and rereading them as I write this, felt like going back to beginning and reading it over again, so rare is it to encounter this perspective, to share how it might have been for those who waited and wailed, who persevered and attempted to recreate a new life from the wreck of what returned.

Angélique Villeneuve writes with great empathy, sensitivity and understanding in narrating a story from the little explored perspective of the young working woman dealing with the aftermath of war, in which they have all changed and must live in a post traumatic world, with little knowledge of how to navigate it.

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

Born in Paris in 1965, Angélique Villeneuve lived in Sweden and India before returning to her native France. The author of eight novels, she has also written numerous children’s books and poetry.

Les Fleurs d’hiver, originally published in 2014, won four literary prizes: the 2014 Prix Millepages, the 2015 Prix La Passerelle and Prix de la Ville de Rambouillet, and the 2016 Prix du Livre de Caractère de Quintin.

Villeneuve’s novel Maria (2018), won the SGDL Grand Prix for fiction. Her most recent work, La Belle Lumière (2020), is a fictional account of the life of Helen Keller’s mother.

Winter Flowers is the first of her books to be translated into English.

Adriana Hunter, Translator

An award-winning British translator, Adriana Hunter has translated over ninety books from French, mostly works of literary fiction. She won the 2011 Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (Peirene Press, 2010) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W. Her translations have been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize.

N.B. Thank you to Peirene Press for providing me a review copy.

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature