Dublin Literary Award Longlist 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Longlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Story (Fiction) by Larissa Behrendt  (Australia)

After Story Larissa Behrendt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bone Memories (Fiction) by Sally Piper (Australia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crossroads (Domestic Fiction) by Jonathan Franzen (US)

“Suspense” – Öffentliche Bücherei -Anna Seghers, Germany

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

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

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

Devotion (Historical Fiction) by Hannah Kent  (Australia)

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

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

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

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

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

Fight Night (Fiction) by Miriam Toews (Canada)

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

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

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

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

Glory (Literary Fiction) by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Marriage by Monica Ali (Bangladesh/UK)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matrix (Fiction) by Lauren Groff (US)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Strange Paradise by Omar El-Akkad (Canada)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Three by Valérie Perrin tr. Hildegarde Serle

From Flowers to Friendship

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

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

The Ties That Bind

French literature fiction Europa Editions

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

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

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

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

Unconventional Families

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

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

coming of age french novel

Photo by iOnix on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

Creating Suspense and Intrigue

Three Valérie Perrin Europa Editions

Photo Quang Nguyen VinhPexels.com

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

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

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

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

A Feast of Issues, A Famine of Depth

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

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

Valérie Perrin, Author

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

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

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

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

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.

Dublin Literary Award Shortlist 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

The International Booker Prize Longlist 2022

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

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

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

The 13 nominated books are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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 Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

A book that can be read in an afternoon, this is my first read of Annie Ernaux’s work, one I enjoyed and appreciated. I did find myself wondering why the French title La place was changed to A Man’s Place. I find the change in title unnecessarily provocative and limiting.

La Place autofiction memoir French literature women in translationAt only 76 pages, it is a brief recollection that begins in quiet, dramatic form as she recalls the day her father, at the age of 67, unexpectedly, quite suddenly dies.

Other memories arise as she recalls this shocking one and it is this same recollection she will end the book with, albeit alongside a few other now restored memories, once she has written her way through many others as she attempts to create a tableau of anecdotes that describe the man her father was, their family, social status and surroundings.

A child who will rise into and feel comfortable within a middle class environment, marrying into it, she then tries to look back, remember and understand the characteristics and desires of her family – her father in particular – now that she dwells on the other side, among the petite bourgeoisie.

Having decided she has no right to adopt an artistic approach to write about him (the novel), she embarks on a more neutral tone.

I shall collate my father’s words, tastes and mannerisms, the main events of his life, all the external evidence of his existence, an existence which I too shared.
No lyrical reminiscences, no triumphant displays of irony. This neutral way of writing comes to me naturally, it is the very same style I used when I wrote home telling my parents the latest news.

Neither fiction or nonfiction, this work has  been described as an autosociobiographical text, one that explores their lives and the social milieu within which they are surrounded, dwell and evolve.

Though she only met her grandfather once, she sketches him through overheard comments, a hard man that no one dared quarrel with, a carter for wealthy landowning farmers.

His meanness was the driving force which helped him resist poverty and convince himself that he was a man. What really enraged him was to see one of the family reading a book or a newspaper in his house. He hadn’t had time to learn how to read or write. He could certainly count.

French memoir autofiction nonfictionErnaux’s father was fortunate to remain in education until the age of 12, when he was hauled out to take up the role of milking cows. He didn’t mind working as a farmhand. Weekend mass, dancing at the village fetes, seeing his friends there. His horizons broadened through the army and after this experience he left farming for the factory and eventually they would buy a cafe/grocery store, a different lifestyle.

Ernaux shares memories, observing her father and her own growing awareness of the distance between his existence and way of being and that witnessed at the homes of friends she becomes acquainted with, as she straddles the divide, living in one world, familiar with the other, neither judging or sentimentalising the experiences as she notes them down.

In front of people whom he considered to be important, his manner was shy and gauche and he never asked any questions. In short, he behaved intelligently. Which consisted in grasping our inferiority and refusing to accept it by doing everything possible to conceal it.

They are a snapshot in time and of a place and way of life of a certain social class and milieu, one she is able to preserve by collecting these memories in a kind of obituary to both her father and the places he lived and worked, the people he loved, the mannerisms and behaviours he engendered.

His greatest satisfaction, possibly even the raison d’être of his existence, was the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.

Annie Ernaux, Author

Annie ErnauxBorn in 1940, Annie Ernaux (née Duchesne) was born in Lillebonne and grew up in Yvetot, Normandy, where her parents ran a café and grocery store. She was educated at a private Catholic secondary school, encountering girls from more middle-class backgrounds, and experiencing shame of her working-class parents and milieu for the first time. After studying at Rouen University she became a school teacher.

Her books, in particular A Man’s Place (La Place) and A Woman’s Story (Une femme) have become contemporary classics in France.

One of France’s most respected authors, she has won multiple awards for her books, including the Prix Renaudot (2008) for The Years (Les Années) and the Marguerite Yourcenar prize (2017) for her entire body of work. The English translation of The Years (2019) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize International and won the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2019).

The main themes threaded through her work over more than four decades are: the body and sexuality; intimate relationships; social inequality and the experience of changing class through education; time and memory; and the overarching question of how to write these life experiences.

Fitzcarrraldo Editions have now translated and published seven of her works into English.

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.

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