Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

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

cemetery keeper changer l'eau des fleursWhat a refreshing read to end 2020 with, a novel of interwoven characters and connections, threaded throughout the life of Violette Touissant, given up at birth.

When I was born I didn’t even cry. So I was put aside, like a 2.67kg parcel with no stamp, no addressee, while the administrative forms were filled in, declaring my departure prior to my arrival.
Stillborn. A child without life and without a surname.

We first meet Violetteas an adult. Having been a level-crossing keeper she is now a cemetery keeper. She introduces her neighbours and their characteristics in common, they are an intriguing lot, who we are going to get to know better.

Those neighbours she lives among are the dead, while she lives in the heaven of the living, at the mid-range of life having been through plenty of pain and suffering to get there. Now rewarded, she has found her place, her people and those who deserve to be part of it, have found her too.

My present life is a present from heaven. As I say to myself every morning, when I open my eyes.
I have been very unhappy, destroyed even. Nonexistent. Drained. I was like my closest neighbours, but worse. My vital functions were functioning, but without me inside them.

Level Crossing Keeper

The 94 short chapters all begin with a thought provoking quote, the narrative seesaws back and forth to moments in that life, sometimes revisiting the same moments, but seeing them from the point of view of Violette, her husband Philippe and the many other pairs of characters we encounter, through their connection to those dead neighbours of hers.

Since taking on the job of cemetery keeper, after meeting one of the most life-changing characters, Sasha, she has been recording details of the events that take place in the cemetery, making diary-like entries, references that she is able to refer back to when people stop by to have a cup of tea or something stronger, looking for the resting place of someone important to them, not always family, but people with connections that weren’t always able to be fully expressed in life.

Death never takes a break. It knows neither summer holidays, not public holidays, nor dentist appointments…It’s there, everywhere, all the time. No one really thinks about it, or they’d go mad. It’s like a dog that’s forever weaving around our legs, but whose presence we only notice when it bites us. Or worse, bites a loved one.

The narrative returns to her early adult life, at 18, already married, she discovers the 821 page novel L’Oeuvre de Dieu, la part du Diable a French translation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, a book known to open minds and hearts, eliciting compassion for a set of circumstances no one really thinks about, making the reader look at the world in a slightly different way.

Which is perhaps what Fresh Water For Flowers does, taking characters in unconventional circumstances and sharing their stories, watching how those stories shock, enlighten, end and change lives.

Violette too will have to deal with death. A death that develops into the more significant mystery at the core of the novel. And with it, innumerable twists and turns, suspicions and revelations.

Life is but an endless losing of all that one loves.

Every summer she stays in the chalet of her friend Célia, in the calanque of Sormiou, Marseille. A place of refuge and rejevenation, that Perrin too brings alive, eliciting the recovery and rehabilitation this nature-protected part of the Mediterranean offers humanity.

It’s a gentle novel because even though there are moments of tragedy, they are seen through the eyes of the most empathetic character, so even the most villainous, unlikable characters are given a generous, understanding hearing.

The details of the life of a keeper, whether it’s the level crossing or the cemetery are so realistic, evocative and visual, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this book may be turned into a series; it’s too long for a movie and with so many interconnecting lives, it  feels like it could have continued on, just as life and death does, always someone arriving, someone departing, and someone there to soothe the way through those transitions.

It’s not a book I have heard anything about until now, but it’s going on my list of favourites for 2020 and is one I highly recommend.

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy for review.

I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

A Maryse Condé FanGirl Moment

I Tituba Black Witch of Salem Maryse Conde

When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there was a quote from the author Maryse Condé that read:

Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, knowing that Condé was doing here, what she did in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, when the grandmother she’d never met, awakened her from her dreams, to chastise her from the corner of the room.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book wasn’t published until 20 years after Condé was listening to Tituba tell her story.

A Caribbean Writer Returns

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that inform, disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that Maryse Condé declared she would never write about Africa again.

Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Who was Tituba?

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, despite the shelves of history books about the Salem witch trials, there is little factual information about her, who she was, who freed her, or her life after release from prison.

I felt this eclipse of Tituba’s life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn’t there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. And so she wrote this novel.

Review

On a ship sailing for Barbados, young Abena was raped by an English sailor, then sold to a planter along with two male slaves. She was employed in the household until the pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of a male slave Yao. Tituba was born.

In a short reprieve, they find comfort in each other’s company and Tituba would adored by a man more father to her than any other. The joy that now lightened Abena’s world was seen by the master and desired for himself. She struck back, died for it, and for his concubine’s crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya; still grieving for two sons, she had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.

People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya taught her everything, in the ways of her people:

Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsAnd so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian.

He belonged to Susanna Endicott who I encountered in the memorable opening scene of Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John had lived most of his life, things deteriorated and in an act of revenge the mistress sold them both to the frightening Reverend Samuel Parris, who sailed for the Bay Colony the very next day.

From Island Life to Boston, Massachusetts

In Boston, with the mistress unwell in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.

I also recognized Abigail and Betsey’s companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody’s attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls given credence, turn into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom.

Freedom At What Price

If the first part is written from compassion, yet seeking revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found it difficult to accept, the reader isn’t given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading past the novel into the essay and interview at the end of the book, I’m confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, in a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

Reading the book and thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was heightened by having read Ann Petry’s sympathetic version first, Condé takes a different approach, reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry’s version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last.

What Is it About Witchcraft?

Magic witchcraft spells Tituba Isobel GowdieLike Condé, who said she knew nothing of witchcraft, I have decided to read a contemporary book next, published in 2020, to see what’s going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.

Further Reading

Paper: Hesitating Between Irony and the Desire to Be Serious in I, Tituba by Sarah Barbour, Wake Forest University

 

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation 2020, shortlist and the winner

This is a relatively new prize in the UK, established and run by the University of Warwick and now in it’s 3rd year.  Its aim is to address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices:

Women in Translation Warwick Prize ShortlistSeven titles were shortlisted for the annual Women in Translation award from 132 eligible entries, 16 titles made the initial longlist:

The 7 shortlisted titles included 3 novels (one an epistolary novel), 2 collections of short stories, 1 collection of letters, and 1 young adult novella.

Six languages were represented: Arabic (Sudan), Chinese (China & Malaysia), German (Georgia/Germany), Hungarian (Hungary), Italian (Italian) & Swedish (Finland).

The shortlist was dominated by independent publishers, including Comma Press and 5 publishers who appeared on the shortlist for the first time: Daunt Books, Granta, HopeRoad, Scribe UK and Sort of Books.

Seven make the Shortlist

The full list of shortlisted titles, in alphabetical order, is as follows:

Abigail Magda Szabo HungaryAbigail by Magda Szabó (Hungary), translated by Len Rix (MacLehose Press, 2020)

– the story of a headstrong teenager growing up during World War II. Gina is the only child of a general, a widower who has long been happy to spoil his bright and willful daughter. Gina is devastated when the general tells her he must leave and she will attend a boarding school in the country and more so when she discovers how grim it is. She fights with her students, rebels against teachers, is ostracized and runs away. Caught and returned, she is entrusted to the legendary Abigail.

 

Natalia Ginzburg Happiness As Such Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Minna Zallmann Proctor (Daunt Books Publishing, 2019)

– The story of the Prodigal Son turned on its head, Happiness, As Such is a short, absurdly funny novel-in-letters about complicated families and missed connections.
Michele is the beloved only son of a large, dysfunctional family in 1970s Italy. Headstrong and independent, he has disappeared to London without explanation. Back in Italy, his father lies dying. Michele’s departure sets forth a series of events that will bring together everyone in his life.

 

Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong (Malaysia) translated from Chinese by Natascha Bruce (Granta Publications, 2019)

– A portrait of Malaysian society in nine stories, Lake Like a Mirror explores the lives of women buffeted by powers beyond their control. Squeezing themselves between the gaps of rabid urbanisation, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government, these women find their lives twisted in disturbing ways.

In precise and disquieting prose, Ho Sok Fong draws her readers into a richly atmospheric world of naked sleepwalkers in a Muslim women’s home, mysterious wooden boxes, gossip in unlicensed hairdressers, hotels with amnesiac guests, and poetry classes with accidentally charged politics – a world that is both bizarre and utterly true.

 

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Finland) edited by Boel Westin & Helen Svensson, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Sort of Books, 2019)

– Out of the thousands of letters Tove Jansson wrote, a cache remains that she addressed to her family, her dearest confidantes, and her lovers, male and female. Into these she spilled her innermost thoughts, defended her ideals and revealed her heart. To read these letters is both an act of startling intimacy and a rare privilege.

Penned with grace and humour, this collection offers an almost seamless commentary on her life as it unfolds within Helsinki’s bohemian circles and her island home. Spanning 50 years between her art studies and the height of Moomin fame, they cover the bleakness of war, hopes for love that were dashed and renewed, and her determined attempts to establish herself as an artist.

Vivid, inspiring and shining with integrity, Letters from Tove shows precisely how an aspiring and courageous young artist can evolve into a very great one.

 

Translated Fiction The Eight LifeThe Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (Georgia/Germany), translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe UK, 2019)

–  the story of seven women living through one of the greatest drama’s of the twentieth century.

1900, Georgia: in the deep south of the Russian Empire, Stasia, the daughter of a famous chocolatier, dreams of ballet in Paris, but marries a soldier, and is caught up in the October Revolution. Escaping with her children, she finds shelter with her unworldly sister Christine, whose beauty, fatally, has caught the eye of Stalin’s henchman. Disastrous consequences ensue for the whole family.

2006, Germany: after the fall of the Iron Curtain Georgia is shaken by a civil war. Niza, Stasia’s great granddaughter has broken from her family and moved to Berlin. But when her 12-year-old niece Brilka runs away, Niza must track her down and tell her the truth about their family — and about the secret recipe for hot chocolate, which has given both salvation and misfortune over six generations.

Epic and absorbing, The Eighth Life is a novel of seven exceptional lives lived under the heat and light of empire, revolution, war, repression, and liberation.

 

Rania Mamoun Thirteen Months of Sunrise Translated FictionThirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (Sudan), translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press, 2019)

– A young woman sits by her father’s deathbed, lamenting her failure to keep a promise to him…

A struggling writer walks every inch of the city in search of inspiration, only to find it is much closer than she imagined…

A girl collapses from hunger at the side of the road and is rescued by the most unlikely of saviours…

In this powerful, debut collection of stories, Rania Mamoun blends the real and imagined to create a rich, complex and moving portrait of contemporary Sudan. From painful encounters with loved ones to unexpected new friendships, Mamoun illuminates the breadth of human experience and explores, with humour and compassion, the alienation, isolation and estrangement that is urban life.

 

White Horse Yan Ge China Warwick Prize TranslationWhite Horse by Yan Ge (China), translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman (HopeRoad, 2019)

– This compact novella contains a gripping psychological tale, enlivened by wickedly sharp insights into contemporary small-town life in China.

Yun Yun lives in a small West China town with her widowed father and an uncle, aunt, and older cousin who live nearby. One day, her once-secure world begins to fall apart. Through her eyes, we observe her cousin, Zhang Qing, keen to dive into the excitements of adolescence, but clashing with repressive parents. Ensuing tensions reveal that the relationships between the two families are founded on a terrible lie.

Three Commended By the Judges

Although not on the shortlist, 3 titles from the longlist were singled out for commendation by the judges:

Isabella Isabella Morra Poetry ItalyIsabella (Smokestack Books, 2019), a collection of fiercely feminist poems by the Italian Renaissance writer Isabella Morra translated by Caroline Maldonado

– Isabella Morra (c1520-1545/6) was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in Southern Italy. Forced to live in strict isolation in the family castle in Valsinni on a steep cliff above the Ionian Sea, she devoted herself to writing a series of extraordinary poems, ‘amaro, aspro e dolente’ (‘bitter, harsh and sorrowful’), about her longing for escape. When she was twenty-six she was brutally murdered by three of her brothers in an honour killing. She was buried in an unmarked grave, and her poetry was forgotten for several hundred years.

The Way Through the Woods On Mushrooms and Mourningthe extraordinary memoir about mushrooms and grief, The Way Through the Woods (Scribe UK, 2019) by Malaysian-born Long Litt Woon, translated from Norwegian by Barbara Haveland

– A grieving widow feeling disconnected from life discovers an unexpected passion, hunting for mushrooms, in a story of healing and purpose.
Long Litt Woon moved to Norway from Malaysia as a nineteen-year-old exchange student. Soon after her arrival, she met Eiolf who became the love of her life. After thirty-two years together, Eiolf’s sudden death left Woon struggling to imagine a life without the man who had been her soulmate and best friend. Adrift in grief, Woon signed up for a beginner’s course on mushrooming. She found, to her surprise, that the hunt for mushrooms and mushroom knowledge rekindled her appetite for life, awakened her dulled senses providing a source of joy and meaning.

Marion Brunet Summer of Reckoningand the pacey young adult thriller set in a small French town rife with racism and rage Summer of Reckoning (Bitter Lemon Press, 2020) by Marion Brunet, translated from French by Katherine Gregor.

– in the suffocating atmosphere of a social housing estate in the south of France, sixteen-year-old Céline and her sister Jo, fifteen, dream of escaping to somewhere far from their daily routine, far from their surly, alcoholic father and uncaring mother, both struggling to make ends meet.

A dark and upsetting account of an ailing society, filled with silent and murderous rage

And the winner is…

Translated Fiction The Eight Life

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

‘Elegant … It is a triumph of both authorship and painstaking translation … The Eighth Life is an unforgettable love letter to Georgia and the Caucasus, to lives led and to come, and to writing itself.’

CATHERINE TAYLOR, THE ECONOMIST

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein

Another excellent example of Elena Ferrante’s ability to zoom in close, with intensity into the subconscious of her protagonist, this time through the lens of a girl entering adolescence.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante Ann GoldsteinFrom the opening pages, as Giovanna overhears a random comment from her father, it expands in her mind and overtakes her physically and mentally like a disease, affecting her mind, causing her to act in certain ways.

To the reader it may seem irrational, but to the hormone affected adolescent everything is magnified and causes her to imagine, lash out, withdraw, have moments of tenderness followed by hate and indifference.

She is uncomfortable in her skin and mind, lurching between strategies of action and non-action, always confrontational.

Though warned against her and until now they’ve never met, Giovanna cultivates a relationship with her estranged Aunt Vittoria, seeing her as a convenient tool of provocation and a source of not always reliable information.

She spewed bitterness, and yet those words now brought me relief, I repeated them in my mind. They affirmed the existence of a strong and positive bond, they demanded it. My aunt hadn’t said: you have my face or at least you look something like me; my aunt had said: you don’t belong only to your mother and father, you’re mine, too, you belong to the whole family that he came from, and anyone who belongs to us is never alone, is charged with energy.

It is a roller coaster of emotions and a river of consciousness as we ride along, wondering who is going to survive these years unscathed.

The Class Divide

There is the intensity we’ve come to expect of Ferrante, the twisted emotions and imaginings of her protagonist leading the story, reading the surface of behaviours of adults around her, creating confusion, with that precise, recognisable linguistic clarity. Her father and Aunt represent a class divide that Giovanni witnesses, growing up on one side her father has escaped to, and now intrigued by the other that her Aunt inhabits.

Their mutual hatred remained intact, and I soon gave up any attempt at mediation. I began instead to say to myself explicitly that that hatred was an advantage for me: if my father and his sister made peace, my encounters with Vittoria wouldn’t be exclusive, I might be downgraded to niece, and certainly I would lose the role of friend, confidante, accomplice. Sometimes I felt that if they stopped hating each other I would do something to make them start again.

I can’t really talk about the novel in the singular as I see her individual novels now as a tapestry of different women characters from Naples, in various stages of their life – the two friends in My Brilliant Friend, the daughter in Troubling Love and the betrayed wife of The Days of Abandonment.

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante

Photo by Luidi Cardoso on Pexels.com

Inside the overthinking mind of an adolescent and the pushing boundary-like behaviours, exposing that lying life, provoking reactions, seeing the damage of truth-telling and then the transition, an increasing self-awareness, noticing a reduced need to react to annoyances, about one’s parents, one’s friends, teachers, family. A letting go. A transition. Decisions. To care or not to care.

I behaved like that certainly to feel free from all the old bonds, to make it clear that I didn’t care anymore about the judgment of relatives and friends, their values, their wanting me to be consistent with what they imagined themselves to be.

Ferrante provides the reader no easy conclusions, makes no judgments, but leads you down paths that will confront you with your own, as you carry on a conversation inside your own mind, wondering and trying to guess what her character might do next.

As the novel nears the end, it reads almost like a thriller, as we can see she is moving towards adulthood, her behaviours are less volatile, she feels less of a need to respond so violently, and yet, there is the danger that now she is becoming one of them – an adult – those who hide their behaviours behind lies.

Raw, intense, a delightful, refreshing, “stand up to them” protagonist.

My Reviews of Ferrante Books

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Troubling Love (novel)

The Days of Abandonment (novel)

The Neapolitan Quartet: (tetralogy – 4 novels)

My Brilliant Friend

The Story of a New Name

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The Story of the Lost Child

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey (nonfiction)

Further Reading

Review, Guardian:  a rebel rich girl comes of age

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors