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

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

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

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

Our Feet Connect Us

Mrs Duszejko observing his feet:

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

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

brown deer under trees

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

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

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

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

A Community of Soul Mates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Olga Tokarczuk, Author

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

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

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

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

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2021 Runner Up + Winner

The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation is awarded annually to the best eligible work of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, work of fiction for children or young adults, graphic novel, or play text, written by a woman, translated into English by a translator(s) of any gender, and published by a UK or Irish publisher.

The prize launched in 2017 with the aim of addressing the gender imbalance in translated literature and increasing the number of international women’s voices accessible to a British and Irish readership.

The Long and Shortlist

Translated literary fiction makes up only 3.5% of the literary fiction titles published in the UK, though it accounts for 7% of the volume of sales. You can see the list of 115 eligible titles here, the longlist of 17 titles here (including descriptions of the books) and the shortlist of 8 titles here as shown in the image below.

In 2021, there was a runner up and a winner.

literary fiction memoir short stories novels women in translation

The Runner Up

Strange Beasts of China (Science Fiction/Fantasy) by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, published by Tilted Axis Press.

Strange Beasts of China Yan Ge

“Yan Ge imagines a landscape of marvels and terrors that eerily resembles our own everyday world… These fables of love and loneliness, belonging & exclusion, solidarity and otherness, assume an agile and genial English voice in Jeremy Tiang’s translation.”

The Winner

And this year’s winner is….

An Inventory of Losses (Essays/Experimental) by Judith Schalansky, translated from German by Jackie Smith,  published by MacLehose Press.

An Inventory of Losses Judith Schalansky

Described as:

“The stylistic flair, and variety of voice, in Jackie Smith’s mesmerising translation, turn Schalansky’s reminder that ‘Being alive means experiencing loss’ into a journey full of colour, contrast and bittersweet pleasures. A thoroughly memorable winner […] that will surely endure.”

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation Longlist 2021

This £1000 prize was established by the University of Warwick in 2017 to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership. The list includes titles published in the UK, translated into English.

In 2020, A Multi-generational Saga

Last year the prize was awarded to The Eighth Life (a family saga that begins with the daughters of a Georgian chocolatier, through wars, revolutions and generations), by Nino Haratischvili, translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

The 2021 prize is judged by Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin and Susan Bassnett.

“These long-listed titles not only span cultures and continents from China to Georgia, and from Thailand to Poland, they also cover a spectrum of literary forms. The list includes poetry, fiction of many kinds – from futuristic fables to family sagas – as well as a range of imaginative non-fiction, from family memoir and biographical essay to social history.

In every case, the artistry of the translator keeps pace with the invention of the author. Each book created its own world in its own voice. The judges warmly recommend them all.”

The 2021 Longlist

From 115 eligible entries representing 28 languages, seventeen titles have been longlisted for the prize. (Book descriptions below are extracted via Goodreads)

The longlist covers ten languages with French, German, Japanese and Russian represented more than once. Translations from Georgian and Thai are represented on the longlist for the first time in 2021.

women in translation prize 2021

Maria Stepanova and her translator from Russian Sasha Dugdale feature twice on the longlist with In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books). Also longlisted are previous winners of the prize Annie Ernaux and translator Alison L. Strayer who won in 2019 for The Years. Writers Jenny Erpenbeck, Hiromi Kawakami, Esther Kinsky and Yan Ge, and translators Elisabeth Jaquette, Frank Wynne, are all on the longlist for the second time.

The shortlist for the prize will be published in early November. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Wednesday 24 November.

The Longlist

Nana EkvtimishviliThe Pear Field, translated from Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (Fiction/Historical) (Peirene Press, 2020)

The Pear FieldIn post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020) (Memoir)

A Girls Story Annie ErnauxAnnie Ernaux revisits the summer of 1958, spent working as a holiday camp instructor in Normandy, and recounts the first night she spent with a man. When he moves on, she realizes she has submitted her will to his and finds that she is a slave without a master. Now, sixty years later, she finds she can obliterate the intervening years and return to consider this young woman whom she wanted to forget completely. In writing A Girl’s Story, which brings to life her indelible memories of that summer, Ernaux discovers that here was the vital, violent and dolorous origin of her writing life, built out of shame, violence and betrayal.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Not a Novel, translated from German by Kurt Beals (Granta, 2020) (Essays/Nonfiction)

Not a Novel Jenny ErpenbeckA collection of intimate and explosive essays on literature, life, history, politics and place. Drawing from her 25 years of thinking and writing, the book plots a journey through the works and subjects that have inspired and influenced her.

Written with the same clarity and insight that characterize her fiction, the pieces range from literary criticism and reflections on Germany’s history, to the autobiographical essays where Erpenbeck forgoes the literary cloak to write from a deeply personal perspective about life and politics, hope and despair, and the role of the writer in grappling with these forces.

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Fantasy/Science Fiction) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Strange Beasts of China Yan GeIn the fictional Chinese town of Yong’an, human beings live alongside spirits and monsters, some of almost indistinguishable from people. Told in the form of a bestiary, each chapter introduces us to a new creature – from the Sacrificial Beasts who can’t seem to stop dying, to the Besotted Beasts, an artificial breed engineered by scientists to be as loveable as possible. The narrator, an amateur cryptozoologist, is on a mission to track down each breed, but in the process discovers that she might not be as human as she thought.

Hiromi KawakamiPeople from My Neighbourhood, translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen (short stories/magic realism) (Granta, 2020)

People From My NeighbourhoodFrom the author of the internationally bestselling Strange Weather in Tokyo, a collection of interlinking stories that blend the mundane and the mythical—“fairy tales in the best Brothers Grimm tradition: naif, magical, and frequently veering into the macabre”.

A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a t­ree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll’s brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen goes fishing on a lake no one has heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood. In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods.

Mieko KawakamiBreasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Fiction/Feminism) (Picador, 2020)

Breast and EggsBreasts and Eggs explores the inner conflicts of an adolescent girl who refuses to communicate with her mother except through writing.

Through the story of these women, Kawakami paints a portrait of womanhood in contemporary Japan, probing questions of gender and beauty norms and how time works on the female body.

Esther KinskyGrove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fiction/Travel) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove Esther KinskyAn unnamed narrator, recently bereaved, travels to Olevano, a small village south-east of Rome. It is winter, and from her temporary residence on a hill between village and cemetery, she embarks on walks and outings, exploring the banal and the sublime with equal dedication and intensity. Seeing, describing, naming the world around her is her way of redefining her place within it. Written in a rich and poetic style, Grove is an exquisite novel of grief, love and landscapes.

Camille LaurensLittle Dancer Aged Fourteen, translated from French by Willard Wood (Nonfiction/Art/Biography) (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Little Dancer Aged FourteenThis absorbing, heartfelt work tells the story of the real dancer behind Degas’s now-iconic sculpture, and the struggles of late nineteenth-century bohemian life of Paris.

Famous throughout the world, how many know her name? Admired in paintings in Washington, Paris, London and New York but where is she buried? We know her age, 14, and the grueling work she did, at an age when children today are in school. In the 1880s, she danced as a “little rat” at the Paris Opera; what is a dream for girls now wasn’t a dream then. Fired after  years of hard work when the director had had enough of her repeated absences, she had been working another job as the few pennies the Opera paid weren’t enough to keep her family fed. A model, she posed for painters or sculptors, among them Edgar Degas.

Drawing on a wealth of historical material and her own love of ballet and personal experience of loss, Camille Laurens presents a compelling, compassionate portrait of Marie van Goethem and the world of the artists’ models themselves, often overlooked in the history of art.

Scholastique MukasongaOur Lady of the Nile, translated from French by Melanie Mauthner (Fiction/Rwanda) (Daunt Books Publishing, 2021)

Our Lady of the Nile Scholastique MukasongaParents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.

It is 15 years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.

A landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.

Duanwad PimwanaArid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (short stories) (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams Duanwad PumwanaIn 13 stories that investigate ordinary and working-class Thailand, characters aspire for more but remain suspended in routine. They bide their time, waiting for an extraordinary event to end their stasis. A politician’s wife imagines her life had her husband’s accident been fatal, a man on death row requests that a friend clear up a misunderstanding with a prostitute, and an elevator attendant feels himself wasting away while trapped, immobile, at his station all day.

With curious wit, this collection offers revelatory insight and subtle critique, exploring class, gender, and disenchantment in a changing country.

Olga RavnThe Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken (Science Fiction) (Lolli Editions, 2020)

The Elpmoyees Olga RavnA workplace novel of the 22nd century. The near-distant future. Millions of kilometres from Earth.

The crew of the Six-Thousand ship consists of those who were born, and those who were created. Those who will die, and those who will not. When the ship takes on strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew is perplexed to find itself becoming attached to them, and human and humanoid employees alike find themselves longing for the same things: warmth and intimacy. Loved ones who have passed. Our shared, far-away Earth, now only persists in memory.

Gradually, the crew members come to see themselves in a new light, each employee is compelled to ask themselves whether their work can carry on as before – what it means to be truly alive.

Structured as a series of witness statements compiled by a workplace commission, Ravn’s crackling prose is as chilling as it is moving, as exhilarating as it is foreboding. Wracked by all kinds of longing, The Employees probes what it means to be human, emotionally and ontologically, while delivering an overdue critique of a life governed by work and the logic of productivity.

Judith SchalanskyAn Inventory of Losses, translated from German by Jackie Smith (Essays/Experimental) MacLehose Press, 2020)

An Inventory of Losses Judith SchalanskyA dazzling cabinet of curiosities from one of Europe’s most acclaimed and inventive writers.

Each of the pieces, following the conventions of a different genre, considers something that is irretrievably lost to the world, including the paradisal pacific island of Tuanaki, the Caspian Tiger, the Villa Sacchetti in Rome, Sappho’s love poems, Greta Garbo’s fading beauty, a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, and the former East Germany’s Palace of the Republic.

As a child of the former East Germany, the dominant emotion in Schalansky’s work is “loss” and its aftermath, in an engaging mixture of intellectual curiosity, with a down-to-earth grasp of life’s pitiless vitality, ironic humour, stylistic elegance and intensity of feeling that combine to make this one of the most original and beautifully designed books to be published in 2020.

Adania ShibliMinor Detail, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Fiction/Palestine) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Minor Detail Adrania ShibliMinor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – the catastrophe that led to the displacement and expulsion of more than 700,000 people – and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers capture and rape a young Palestinian woman, and kill and bury her in the sand. Many years later, a woman in Ramallah becomes fascinated to the point of obsession with this ‘minor detail’ of history. A haunting meditation on war, violence and memory, Minor Detail cuts to the heart of the Palestinian experience of dispossession, life under occupation, and the persistent difficulty of piecing together a narrative in the face of ongoing erasure and disempowerment.

Małgorzata SzejnertEllis Island: A People’s History, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Nonfiction/History) (Scribe UK, 2020)

Ellis Island A Peoples HistoryA landmark work of history that brings voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

Whilst living in New York, journalist Małgorzata Szejnert would gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon. How many stories did this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life there — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will?

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

It tells many stories of the island, from Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked at the station before going on to become one of New York City’s mayors, to depicting the ordeal the island went through on 9/11. At the book’s core are letters recovered from the Russian State Archive, a heartrending trove of correspondence from migrants to their loved ones back home. Their letters never reached their destination: they were confiscated by intelligence services and remained largely unseen.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed the island compound spent longer as an internment camp than a migration station.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the US. Its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique photographs.

Maria StepanovaIn Memory of Memory, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (essay/fiction/memoir/travelogue/historical) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

In Memory of Memory Maria StepanovaWith the death of her aunt, Maria Stepanova is left to sift through an apartment full of faded photographs, old postcards, letters, diaries, and heaps of souvenirs: a withered repository of a century of life in Russia. Carefully reassembled with calm, steady hands, these shards tell the story of how a seemingly ordinary Jewish family somehow managed to survive the myriad persecutions and repressions of the last century.

In dialogue with writers like Roland Barthes, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Osip Mandelstam, In Memory of Memory is imbued with rare intellectual curiosity and a wonderfully soft-spoken, poetic voice. Dipping into various forms – essay, fiction, memoir, travelogue and historical documents – Stepanova assembles a vast panorama of ideas and personalities and offers an entirely new and bold exploration of cultural and personal memory.

Maria StepanovaWar of the Beasts and the Animals, translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Poetry/Experimental) (Bloodaxe Books, 2021)

War of the Beats Maria StepanovaStepanova is one of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers. Immensely high-profile in Russia, her reputation has lagged behind in the West.

War of the Beasts and the Animals includes recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as a third long poem ‘The Body Returns’, commemorates the Centenary of WWI. In all three poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work pleasurable and relevant.

This collection includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems that combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the forms of ballads and songs, but alters them so they almost appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are fragmented and suggestive, they weave together well-known refrains of songs, familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.

Alice ZeniterThe Art of Losing, translated from French by Frank Wynne (Historical Fiction/Algeria) (Picador, 2021)

The Art of LOsing Alice ZeniterNaïma has always known  her family came from Algeria – until now, that meant little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French housing estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.

Of the past, the family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?

Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society. Now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask questions about her family’s history that till now, have had no answers.

Spanning three generations across seventy years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, an identity, a way to speak to your children. It’s a story of colonisation and immigration, and how in some ways, we are a product of the things we’ve left behind.

* * * * *

I haven’t read any of these, though many are familiar, as I have seen them reviewed and discussed. The range of genres is impressive, making it an eclectic selection. I’m interested in The Lady of the Nile, Minor Detail, and Annie Ernaux is an author I’m keen to read, though where to start, as she has seven short memoirs now in English and I keep thinking I ought to read a few in French.

Have you read or heard of any of these titles? Tempted by anything?

Voices of the Lost by Hoda Barakat tr. Marilyn Booth

Those Who Are Lost

Lebanese Arabic LiteratureWritten in three parts, this award winning novel by Lebanese author Hada Barakat, is composed of a series of six letters written in a stream of consciousness narrative that are interlinked.  The letters are read, but not by their intended recipient, found between the pages of a book, dug out of a bin or otherwise encountered. They prompt the finder to write their own letter.

They are a kind of confession, written by the marginalised, floundering in exile. The letters excavate a depth of feeling that is raw, that traverses memory, hurts, an indifferent ability to cause pain, love, sorrow, longing, an abuse of kindness, a deterioration of the psyche.

“With this novel, I wanted to really listen to those millions of wandering souls who can’t speak for themselves: migrants. Their desperation to leave their country, no matter the cost, even if they know their lives will be at stake.”

Some of the letters are written to a family member, others to a lover, others to nameless recipients.

They are all experiencing deep loss having either been removed from all they’ve known or been connected to, or have been abandoned. Below, I’ve chosen a quote from each letter to give a sense of the narrative.

An undocumented immigrant writes to his former lover. He is unkind and doesn’t understand why she tolerates him. We learn that his mother put him on a train alone when he was eight or nine, effectively abandoning him, a sacrifice to gift him the education she never had. A man across from him is watching him through the window. Paranoia.

I’ve never written a letter in my life. Not a single one. There was a letter in my mind, which I brooded over for years, rewriting it in my head again and again. But I never wrote it down. After all, my mother could hardly read, and so I expect she would have taken my letter to one of the village men with enough education to read it to her. That would have been a disaster though!

a book in arabic writings

Photo by SafaPexels.com

A woman in a hotel room writes to a man from her past. She finds a perplexing letter in the pages of the telephone directory in the room. She wonders whether it was the man who penned it or the woman to which he wrote who left it there and why. It was clearly unfinished. She recalls the sweet succulence of the medlar fruits they ate walking the streets of Beirut.

This sweetness has nothing to do with the act of remembering. It’s not the delicious and sweet because it is linked to the past, to the time of our youth, where nostalgia for that time gives everything we can’t bring back a more beautiful sheen. Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I once was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure, unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

flowers desk pen letter

Photo by KoolShootersPexels.com

An escaped torturer recounts his crimes to his mother. He got the idea to write a letter from observing a woman taking some folded papers from her handbag, read them, then tear them in half and drop them in a bin. He retrieves them.

You would say I deserve all this. You might even disown me, calling me the Devil’s offspring. And if I think of my father, I’d have to admit that you have a point. Still, after all that I’ve been through, is there any point in believing that if I asked you to pardon me, you might do it?

I know you won’t, I know there’s really no hope.

A former prostitute writes to her brother. She is on a plane that had been delayed due to the arrest of a passenger. She found a crumpled up letter shoved between the seat and the wall.

I know why security took him away in handcuffs, because I have a letter in my pocket that this man wrote to his mother. He must have tried to hide it before they reached him, because it’s not the kind of letter anyone would just forget about or be careless enough to lose.

A young queer man recounts to his estranged father his partner’s battle with AIDS. He stumbles across a letter written by a woman in a storage locker at a bar he worked in. That was two years ago, recently he reread it.

I read it again and again, as if I knew that woman personally. Or as if I could actually see her in front of me, asking someone’s forgiveness but discovering she could not get it. And not just because her letter would never arrive. It’s about the need we all have for someone to listen to us, and then to decide they will pardon us no matter what we have done.

Those Who Are Searching

In this second part, brief extracts focused on those who have some connection to the letter writers, those who are trying to find their place, searching, also at a loss.

Those Who Are Left Behind

Finally, the mailman leaves his own note, sheltering in the bombed out remains of the post office.

Neither the internet nor anything else would do away with the need for my rounds, not even after internet cafés were springing up everywhere like mushrooms.

Displaced, at a loss, rootless, untethered. Like the roll of the dice they were born into a place and era where stability, home and belonging would be denied them.

Haunting, at times disturbing, it is a compelling read, the rootlessness and isolation felt by the reader, due to the manner in which the letters are written. The edge of despair palpable. It’s as if the one who stayed, surrounded by destruction, is the only one left with a sense of belonging.

Further Reading

Article: The Return of the NonProdigal Sons by Hoda Barakat

Hoda Barakat

Winner International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2019Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952. She has worked in teaching and journalism and lives in France. She has published six novels, two plays, a book of short stories and a book of memoirs, as well as contributing to books written in French. Her work has been translated into a number of languages.

She received the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ in 2002 and the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite National’ in 2008.

Her novels include: The Stone of Laughter (1990), Disciples of Passion (1993), The Tiller of Waters (2000) which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and My Master and my Lover (2004). The Kingdom of This Earth (2012) reached the IPAF longlist in 2013. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, given (at that time) every two years to honour a writer’s achievement in fiction. Voices of the Lost won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction ((IPAF) in 2019.

N.B. Thank you to OneWorld Publications for providing me a review copy

Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve tr. Adriana Hunter

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

Review

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

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

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

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

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

red dahlia winter flowers angélique villeneuve wound like

Photo David JakabPexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angélique Villeneuve, Author

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

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

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

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

Adriana Hunter, Translator

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

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

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve French Literature

Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé (2021) tr. Richard Philcox

This story (originally published in French in 2010 as En attendant la montée des eaux) follows the character of Babakar, a Doctor from Segu, Mali who delivers babies. In the opening chapter while it pours with rain outside, he is called to attend a birth of a young woman he does not know but recognises, who does not survive the birth. Understanding that the man who accompanies her Movar, is not the father, he claims the baby as his own, seeing it as a sign, a return.

It does occasionally trouble him, what he has done and sure enough, one day Movar returns and tells him of the promise made to the young mother, to return her child to her family in Haiti, from where she had fled. The novel begins in Guadeloupe and moves to Haiti, while also travelling to other places through the backstories of the adjacent characters.

Waiting For the Waters to Rise Maryse CondeThough the story follows Babakar, each time we encounter a new character, there is this digression into their backstory(s), so we learn of all these male characters stories, Babakar (in Mali and the often present apparition of his mother Thécla Minerve), Movar, (in Haiti) Fouad (in Lebanon, though being Palestinian he dreams of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwich) who all come together in Haiti, and underlying the visit, this search to find family and learn why the young mother had fled.

Although the story is about the search for Anais’s (the baby) family, for all that this is an employed man raising a young baby on his own, she was remarkably absent, as were her carers, creating a bit of a disconnect, considering the entire motivation for this grand journey was supposedly her well-being, or the pursuit of this promise. The baby seemed to pose no great inconvenience, which seemed strange, the story centred solely on the male characters.

With so much of the novel told in backstory, there was a lot of ‘telling’ and I found myself reading over parts of those narratives quite quickly as they didn’t seem to progress or relate to the story itself. Perhaps there was something universal in the stories of the three main men, in the collapse of their earlier lives that found them seeking solace in each others company, but it didn’t work for me as well as I had hoped.

The family that Anais came from had its own complicated history and political associations, but was less in the foreground.

It was interesting, having just read Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, to be back in Haiti and to understand more of the references and pick up on the atmosphere of the location, the unpredictability and quasi-fear around certain people, never quite knowing if they are safe or not and that metaphor of the title, suggesting disaster not far off.

close up water drop photography

Photo by PixabayPexels.com

As the novel came to a close, those waters began to rise and there is yet another opportunity to enter into an interesting story as the two characters make a plot direction changing decision and enter into an aspect of the story we will never know. And what about the baby, I wonder, not for the first time?

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean author writing in French, the author of many novels including the historical fiction masterpiece Segu and I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.

She remains a favourite author and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work, last year’s Crossing the Mangrove was just brilliant as were her childhood essays in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood.