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!

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2022

And another welcome tradition on International Women’s Day is the announcement of the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which though it generally doesn’t influence my reading intentions, I do enjoy seeing what’s made the list, the familiar and the unfamiliar and becoming acquainted with them, whether read or not.

It looks like a real mix this year, with familiar names of authors I’ve read before, like Louise Erdrich, Elif Shafak and Ruth Ozeki and the titles that have been appearing often in reviews and then the lesser known surprises!

16 novels fiction Remote Sympathy

The only book I have read from the list, and likely to be one of the lesser known is New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey’s excellent historical fiction novel Remote Sympathy (reviewed here), published by Europa Editions.

This 4 minute video below gives very brief mini descriptions of the sixteen novels chosen:

Or if you prefer to read about them; the sixteen longlisted books are as follows:

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith –  (Debut historical fiction, set in Vietnam)(US/Philadelphia, lived in Vietnam for 2 years, her mother’s family fled Vietnam in 1975)

Build Your House Around My BodyTwo Vietnamese women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge. The fates of both women are linked, bound together by past generations, ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. This heart-pounding fever dream of a novel hurtles through the ghostly secrets of Vietnamese history creating an immersive, playful, unforgettable debut.

Careless by Kirsty Capes – (debut contemporary fiction) (UK) (inspired from being inside the care system)

Care LessSometimes it’s easy to fall between the cracks… At 3.04 p.m. on a hot, sticky day in June, Bess finds out she’s pregnant. She could tell her social worker Henry, but he’s useless. She should tell her foster mother, Lisa, but she won’t understand. She really ought to tell Boy, but she hasn’t spoken to him in weeks. Bess knows more than anyone that love doesn’t come without conditions. But this isn’t a love story…

A new narrative of the care experience by a writer who grew up in foster care herself. Already snapped up by the makers of BBC One’s Call The Midwife.

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé – (Fantasy/Paranormal) (US/Washington DC)

Creatures of PassageNephthys is a taxi driver in DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car, with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris.

Unknown to Nephthys, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is drawn to the banks of the same river, where he talks with a mysterious “River Man.” When Dash arrives at Nephthys’s door bearing a cryptic note, she must face the family she abandoned and what frightens her most.

Threading stories of the living and dead it shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans and reluctant ghosts, bringing together a community intent on saving a boy in order to reclaim themselves.

Flamingo by Rachel Elliott – (UK/Bath) (contemporary fiction)

FlamingoA novel of love, homelessness, and learning to be fearless. In the garden, there were three flamingos, gateways to a time when life was impossibly good. They were mascots, symbols of hope.

A novel about the power of love, welcome and acceptance, a celebration of kindness. Set in 2018 and the 80’s, it’s a song for the broken-hearted and the big-hearted, a book full of wild hope.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – (US/California) (historical fiction)

Great Circle Maggie ShipsteadFrom days as a wild child in prohibition America to wartime London, from the rugged shores of NZ to a lonely iceshelf in Antarctica, Marian Graves is driven by a need for freedom and danger. Determined to live an independent life, she resists her childhood sweetheart, burning her way through a suite of glamorous lovers. An obsession with flight consumes her. As she is about to fulfil her greatest ambition, to circumnavigate the globe, Marian crash lands in a perilous wilderness of ice.

Half a century later, troubled film star Hadley Baxter is drawn to play the enigmatic pilot on screen. It is a role that will lead her to an unexpected discovery, throwing fresh light on the story of the unknowable Marian Graves.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey – (Historical fiction set in Germany) (New Zealander who lived some years in Germany)

Buchenwald Weimar WWII novel GermanyMoving away from their Munich apartment isn’t as bad as for Frau Greta Hahn feared. The new villa is  beautiful and life in Buchenwald seems idyllic. But beyond the forest is the looming presence of a work camp. Her husband, SS Dietrich Hahn has been assigned as the camp’s new administrator.

When Frau Hahn’s health leads her into a friendship with one of Buchenwald’s prisoners, Dr Weber, her ignorance about what is going on is challenged. A decade earlier Dr Weber invented an electrotherapy machine to cure disease, until politics interfered with progress. Did it really work? Might it save a life?

A tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels us to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way, in a world in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts and morals – is relative.

Salt Lick by Lulu Allison – (Visual artist/UK/Brighton) (Science fiction/Dystopia)

Salt LickBritain is awash, the sea creeps into the land, brambles and forest swamp derelict towns. Food production has moved overseas and people are forced to move to the cities for work. The countryside is empty. A chorus, the herd voice of feral cows, wander this newly wild land watching over changing times, speaking with love and exasperation.

Jesse and his puppy Mister Maliks roam the woods until his family are forced to leave for London. Lee runs from the terrible restrictions of the White Town where he grew up. Isolde leaves London on foot, walking the abandoned A12 in search of the truth about her mother.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – (NZ’er living in Australia) (Contemporary fiction/humour)

Sorrow and BlissEveryone tells Martha she’s clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer loved by her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – almost 40 – friendless, near jobless and so sad? Why did Patrick leave?

Maybe she is too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain at 17 leaving her changed in a way that no therapist has been able to explain.

Returning to her childhood home to her dysfunctional, bohemian parents, Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is too broken to fix, or by starting over, to write a better ending for herself.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – (Japanese American) (literary fiction/magic realism)

The Book of Form and EmptinessAfter the tragic death of his father, 14-year-old Benny begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house and sound variously pleasant, angry or sad. As his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow louder. When ignoring them doesn’t work, Benny seeks refuge in the silence of a  public library. There he meets a mesmerising street artist with a pet ferret; a homeless philosopher- poet who encourages him to find his own voice; and his very own Book, who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

Blending unforgettable characters with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions, this is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – (Trinidad & Tobago) (contemporary feminist fiction)

The Bread the Evil KneadAlethea is turning 40. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from an abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future challenges her.

Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. She must now decide the woman she wants to be. An engrossing, atmospheric novel with a strong feminist message at the heart of a page-turning plot.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson – (British) (Contemporary fiction)

The ExhibitionistThe Hanrahan family gather for a weekend as artist and notorious egoist Ray prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, who has her own momentous decision to make.

And then Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife, also an artist, who has always put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must make a choice.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton – (US/Florida) (Contemporary fiction)

Opal and NevOpal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, a Black punk artist before her time. Despite her unconventional looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her one night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together.

In early 70’s New York City, as she’s finding her niche in a flamboyant creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues, set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but be a reminder that repercussions are harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – (British Turkish living in London) (Contemporary fiction)

The-Island-of-Missing-TreesIn 1974 Cyprus, two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, Greek/Christian and Defne, Turkish/Muslim, can meet in secret hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. It is where the best food, music and wine in town is. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its sorrows.

In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree witnesses their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and it will be there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart.

Years later in London, 16-year-old Ada has never visited the island where her parents were born. Looking for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – (US/New York) (Contemporary fiction)

The Paper PalaceOn a perfect August morning, Elle heads out for a swim in the pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ – her family’s holiday home in Cape Cod. As she dives beneath the water she relives the passionate encounter she had the night before, against the side of the house that knows all her darkest secrets, while her husband and mother chatted to their guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over 24 hours and 50 years, as Elle’s shocking betrayal leads her to a life-changing decision – and an ending you won’t be able to stop thinking about.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – (Native US/Minnesota) (Contemporary fiction)

The Sentence Louise ErdrichThe Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, the reader and the book. A small bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while trying to understand all that occurs during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day and ends a year later. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during the year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Erdrich has written.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross – (British/Jamaican) (Fantasy/Magic realism)

This One Sky DayDawn breaks across the archipelago of Popisho. The world is stirring awake again, each resident with their own list of things to do: A wedding feast to conjure and cook, an infidelity to investigate, a lost soul to set free. As the sun rises two star-crossed lovers try to find their way back to one another across this single day. When night falls, all have been given a gift, and many are no longer the same.

The sky is pink, and some wonder if it will ever be blue again.

* * * * *

The judging panel will announce the shortlist of six novels, on April 27th. The winner of the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 15th June.

Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton

International Women’s Day

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022 UN

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022

My calendar tells me that today is the journée internationale des droits des femme (I like that in French it focuses on the rights on women, somewhat lost in translation in English) so  I’ve been thinking about what to share.

As often is the case when I ask myself an open question, my mind responds by connecting various other things I’ve noted recently together, creating a common thread.

An article about women surfing in Sri Lanka prompted me to choose Easkey Britton’s book Saltwater in the Blood to read for Reading Ireland Month and it’s the perfect choice for International Women’s Day.

Women Surfing in Sri Lanka

A couple of days ago there was a wonderful article in the Guardian, ‘When I surf I feel so strong’: Sri Lankan women’s quiet surfing revolution by Hannah Ellis-Peterson about the desire of Shamali Sanjaya who grew up in a fishing village, to experience riding the waves like her brother and father whom she would sit and watch enviously.

Easkey Britton Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Sri Lanka

Photo by K. Gonzalez-Keola Pexels.com

When a friend knocked on her door one day inviting her to go surfing, she could hold it back no more, that longing – like the title of Irish pro surfer Easkey Britton’s book alludes to – was indicative of saltwater in the blood. She was a natural surfer.

“When I surf, it is such a happy feeling for me,” she said. “I am filled with this energy, I feel so strong. Life is full of all these headaches and problems, but as soon as I get into the water, I forget about it all.”

Not content to keep her passion to herself, she persevered through disapproval and in 2018 set up the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club, members, ranging from ages 13 to 43. Despite having broken through many local taboos amid accusations of trying to change the culture, many women still face a backlash from their families and communities; however their perseverance has also brought a new lease of life and healing to others.

Book Review and An Obsession With the Sea

I bought this book because I am a sea creature, a lover of the sea, its secrets and legends. I grew up on the wild west coast of New Zealand, near the volcanic rock and black sand beaches of Port Waikato and loved nothing more than going out past the breakers into the big swell of the huge waves there, being lifted up and down and eventually body surfing the wave back in. I loved it.

The coastline is notoriously wild and unfriendly, waves break against rugged cliffs, and the sea in some parts is slowly reclaiming the black sand dunes and dwellings that humans built.

There is something mesmerising about the sea and Easkey Britton’s story shares her physical and intellectual pursuit of it, her mindful practice in relation to it, eventually learning how to awaken to the more feminine element of her psyche in her relation to it with others.

The Irish Coast and Big Wave Surfing

Surfing Natural Cycles Sea Power to Heal Irish Literature

Saltwater in the Blood is an account of her lifelong relationship with the sea, surfing and the rugged coastline of Ireland’s western coast. Complimented by her beautiful illustrations, as on the cover, it is perhaps the nearest thing to experiencing surfing without getting in the water!

She writes about surfing, her connection with the sea and the Irish coast, natural cycles, the ebb and flow of life and learning to let go. 

Right from her early school days, if the tide was out far enough the seafront provided a shortcut to school. Her father surfed and painted and she joined the boys in the water, learning to surf at a young age and becoming a pro champion surfer who toured the world catching waves. 

In the first part of the book she shares how she focused on surfing, following a well trodden path, overcoming fear, learning to read the signs, pushing her physical and mental limits as each level of difficulty was conquered, trying to stay grounded and safe, while riding and being tossed by the waves.

Connect Not Conquer

However, over time, she learned to regard the sea in a different way and began the process of letting go of the need to compete and the heightened awareness that being one of the only girls in the water carried with it. She began the process of moving away from competition towards collaboration (a process that Riane Eisler writes about in Nurturing Our Humanity).

Though she recalls the excitement of learning to tow-surf (pulled behind a jet ski in order to access big waves a paddle surfer can’t get to) and the thrill of surfing the giant waves nearby at Mullaghmore (see Conor Maguire riding a 60-foot Monster Wave), an invitation to travel to far flung places to write about surfing in countries and cultures where it is little known, provides her an opportunity to learn more from what the sea offers, and the unique experience of being in the company of women and their shared relationship to the sea.

Surfing in Iran

One of the most interesting chapters in book for me, was the time she spent in Sistan-Baluchistan in Iran, .

It was a land not known for its surf-exposed coastline. A short stretch of coast, about 60 to 80 kilometres, lies in a narrow swell window between Pakistan and the coast of Oman, exposed for a few months of the year during Indian monsoon season. This was a part of Iran that didn’t feature in any travel guides, let alone surf magazines…At first, it was primarily about the waves, like all surf trips -the discovery of waves that maybe no one else had surfed before. But it soon became something much more.

The first trip was captured in a short film by her travelling companion, French filmmaker Marion Poizeau, an effort that she eventually published on YouTube having failed to find a production or TV company to share it. It went viral – MISSION “SURF EN IRAN”! and was the beginning of their adventure, the second time, the story became about connecting with and teaching a local group of Baluch women to surf.

I wanted to understand the challenges and opportunities of being able to do it and how this compared to our notion of surfing as a pursuit that offers a sense of freedom, flow and escapism and how that was translated in the context of somewhere like Iran.

Surfing in Iran Easkey Britton Irish SurferBefore climbing on the surfboards, they would do what in effect were warm up exercises, but not of the traditional sportsman type, they would play in the waves and get a feel for the swell and the breakers, preparing themselves by sensing the sea’s mood, harmonising with each other.

This change of direction, firstly away from the competitive purpose of surfing and even away from the act of discovery and exploration, towards a meaningful exchange, capable of contributing something meaningful to each others lives, is what I was most impressed by, particularly thinking about that in the context of what today is about, empowering women through sharing knowledge.

It was a breakthrough moment for me personally in terms of how my relationship with surfing and my body truly altered and I realized how much more drawn I was to the connective rather than competitive aspects of surfing and the sea.

Joined by Mona Seraji, a snowboarder and Shahla Yasini, a swimmer and diver, this experience would result in the award winning documentary Into The Sea. Through the eyes of these three women, the viewer experiences the journey from a unique and unusual perspective, full of heart and emotion.

Protect the Ocean

The book ends with a message about looking after the ocean and the responsibility we all have to protect our local water sources.

I also enjoyed that there were so many familiar references to other books I’ve read about the sea or the environment, like Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, botanist Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Anne Morrow Lindbherg’s classic Gift From the Sea and many more.

If you like reading books about the sea and particularly from a woman’s perspective, add this one to your list!

Further Reading

Magic Seaweed’s Hannah Bevan Interviews Easkey Britton On the Power of Saltwater Immersion

Oceanographic Magazine: Living By The Tide  by Easkey Britton on Wild Swimming

SilverKris Article, May 2021: The Rise of Sri Lanka’s First Female Surfers by Zinara Rathnayake (with great photos by Tommy Schultz)

Easkey Britton, Author

Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Lighthouse Cottages

Easkey Britton Working On Her Book at Fanad Lighthouse, one of the ‘Great Lighthouses of Ireland’

Easkey Britton is a world renowned surfer, marine social scientist, activist, writer and artist passionate about the sea. She contributes  her expertise in blue spaces , health and social well-being to national and international research projects.

A life-longer surfer, she channels her passion for surfing and the sea into social change.  Her work is deeply influenced by the ocean and the lessons learned pioneering  women’s big wave surfing in Ireland.

She is the author of 50 Things To Do Beside the Sea, has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and is a regular columnist at Oceanographic Magazine. She lives on the West Coast of Ireland with her partner and their dog Wolfie – however a picture she shared two days ago in a rock pool indicates there are twins on the way!

Reading Ireland logo 2022

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.

The Last Resort by Jan Carson

The only downside in reading The Last Resort is that it was so short!

Northern Irish Literature short storiesThis is the novel I have been waiting for Jan Carson to write, for here is a writer who in her ordinary life as an arts facilitator has brought together people from opposite sides in their way of thinking, encouraging them to sit down and write little stories, enabling them to imagine from within the shoes of an(other) – teaching the practice of empathy.

Her novel The Fire Starters comes from that place of darkness and indifference, when there is no empathy. I found it disturbing. I’ve since realised gothic novels aren’t my thing.

Here, Carson digs deeper into the psyche of the many that make up their community and finds a common thread that connects them, something that both pushes them forward and holds them back and shows it in its many guises, through a kaleidoscope of colourful characters. Everyone has their own mini drama and troubling perspective, that coming together might create a shift away from.

Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, as the book opens we meet Pete, who now (reluctantly) runs the caravan park and Frankie, who has gathered a few friends for the 50th anniversary of Lynette, for whom they will place a memorial bench with a brass plaque at the top of the cliff.

A caravan on the North Coast was the height of luxury, somewhere you could escape to at the weekend. They felt safe here. Or they did until that bomb went off in the car park.

the last resort ballycastle jan carson ireland

Photo Y. ShuraevPexels.com

It’s the first day of the holiday season and most of these people have been coming here for years, though for some this may be their last visit. Not everyone is happy to be here, like Alma and her two siblings, especially when they wake up one morning to discover their phones and her iPad are missing.

Alma is into Agatha Christie and when she discovers they are not the only family that has something missing she decides to investigate, even if there hasn’t been a murder. Yet. No really, there’s no murder.

It’d be easy to push someone over that cliff. It’s so crumbly. You could make it look like an accident. I can think of at least three different times Agatha Christie killed somebody by shoving them off a cliff. If my iPad wasn’t gone I’d google to see if there were more. I’m raging about losing my iPad. Now I have to run my investigation the old-fashioned way. Snooping around. Observing suspects. Taking notes on my jotter. Maybe it’s better like this. Poirot never looked anything up on Wikipedia or checked suspects’ alibis on Facebook. If Poirot was here, he’d say, forget the iPad, Alma. Use your leetle grey cells. I’m doing my best. I’m watching everyone, even Mum. It’s always the person you least suspect.

Alma’s Mum Lois has a PhD in mythology and her thing is sea monsters. Monsters, wizards and demons, that’s her parents thing, Harry Potter is for kids, Alma likes the real world, way scarier.

Seacliff Northern Ireland The Last Resort

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters in the caravan park and about each family we learn what is holding them back, what consumes their minds. And while there is not a murder, no smoking gun, there is the cliff – and from the beginning you sense its ominous presence, the way it draws everyone to its apex.

We meet Alma again (my favourite character) as she trails around the caravan park interrogating her disapproving adult suspects. She’s brilliant.

Richard is a complete empath, hiding it from his family as if it were a sign of weakness, a position likely to be exposed given he has used his father’s caravan to house sixteen homeless men, many of them immigrants.

I couldn’t tell Dad about them. I’ve never really told him what I really do. He wouldn’t understand. In his world, you work hard, and you do well. There’s no reason to end up on the street, hawking The Big Issue, unless you’ve brought it on yourself.

Kathleen struggles to accept her daughter for who she is, because of societal expectations, but finds it hard to follow through with her disapproval because she desperately wants a relationship with her grandson Max. She finds Alma strange, intense and curious.

Lois answers all her questions. She talks to her weans like they’re adults. When she split up with her husband, Alma was fit to tell me the ins and outs of the whole divorce. She was only ten. You have to protect a child that age. They’re not old enough to know everything. Still, I have to say I envy them – calearied as they are – at least they talk to each other, really properly talk. We’re all adults in this caravan but we’ll spend the whole weekend talking about nothing. The weather. The baby. Whether or not to put the kettle on. Avoiding the elephant in the room because nobody wants to cause a scene.

So many great lines, so much humour, angst, regret, camaraderie as the story leads to its wild denouement on the seacliff, as the thing that’s been holding them all together, holding them back, demands to be released.

Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Best Caravans in Fiction (A List in Progress), Jan Carson

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

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

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

Her third novel The Raptures was released in Jan 2022.

My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

It’s Reading Ireland Month and in addition to posting reviews as and when I read books from my Irish Literature pile, I’ll be following Cathy at 746book’s weekly prompts to explore some past favourites.

This week it’s a Top 5 prompt and I was going to do novels, but many of my all time favourite Irish reads are nonfiction, so I’m sharing both.

week 1 Top 5

Top 5 Irish Fiction

There are more than 5 Irish novels that I have rated 5 star reads, so I’m listing the first five that come to mind, that have stayed with me, below. Click on the title to read my review. So honorable mentions to : the incredible Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns and Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, my favourite of the four novels of his I’ve read.

Best Non Fiction Read of 20201. A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – this was my One Outstanding Read of 2020.  Poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work of autofiction/essay reflects on history, motherhood, female passions and the elusiveness of time, place and identity. All this, while reading, rereading, thinking about and translating a 200 year old Irish poem she is obsessed with: “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Somehow she combines this into a fluid, mesmerising text that grabs the reader. Insists. Provokes. Opens Up. Reclaims space. Awakens. Utterly compelling.

“In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such an experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, present, always, but coded in invisible ink.”

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Literary Fiction2. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume – I read Baume’s work of nonfiction Handiwork before any of her novels; I remember looking forward to reading this, wondering what her fiction was going to be like. Having now read three of her books it is clear she has become my current favourite Irish author. Using her unique, rhythmic, contemplative style and way of creating character that is so measured and thoughtful, this novel is about a man getting himself into a state after taking on a stray dog and as it complicates his life, escaping with him on a road trip. It is exquisite, playful and surprising.

“I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.”

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist3. A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – No surprise then that her second novel is also in my Top 5, a stunning work about a young woman leaving Dublin city to return to her roots. She moves into her grandmother’s empty, neglected ‘for sale’ house, a place of temporary refuge as she deals with an aberration in her mental health.

Visual art is part of her recovery and the novel includes references to over seventy art installations that she tests herself on. Taking quiet charge of her own healing, creating daily purpose, the novel is itself the work of an artist. Brilliant.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town CWIP Prize 20204. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – this was a novel I saw being talked about on twitter and bought on a whim, in part because the setting in a fish & chip shop in Northern Ireland reminded me so much of our own funny story (linguistic challenge) in a chip shop in the seaside town of Newcastle in 2019.

Written in a phonetic vernacular that creates a harmonious rhythm, it follows a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed, 27-year-old Majella who has a list of stuff in her head she doesn’t like and has just learned her 85 year old grandmother may have been murdered. It’s entertaining, kind of sad, funny and  confrontational. Not my usuaI literary fare, but I totally loved it.

“Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.”

Hearts Furies5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – this novel was on so many reader’s best books list the year it came out, along with an intriguing premise, I was curious.

A heart and soul epic, with a little inspiration from his own life, it is about a boy coming to terms with his identity, exposing aspects of Ireland’s history, juxtaposed with that of the Netherland’s and the US, as Cyril’s life takes him to both those places.

The novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlighting struggles many encountered during those years, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection or violence.

It is a courageous attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations against our own nature, can be harmful to so many, making us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme. Thought provoking and profound.

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

Top 5 Irish Nonfiction

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds1. Handiwork by Sara Baume – the book that sparked my interest in the work of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, it’s like a notebook, not too many words on each page or chapter, sharing something of her year of sculpting birds. A place for reflections on her experience, observations and insights, connections, including memories of her father and grandfather who also worked with their hands.

Quotes from influential texts she’s known for years offer up additional wisdom as daily she repeats the same rhythm; crafting, sculpting, writing, reading.  Like a songbird, this mini book tweets its tribute to those who craft and create, following an intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

“From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.”

nature writing Wainwright prize2. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – Incredibly this book was written by a 15 year old boy with an ability beyond his years, it is a diary of observations of the natural world around him, a place that provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to the way he is in the world.

The book follows the seasons through the senses of this autistic boy, who has a passion for nature and the environment and a family in tune with he and his siblings needs. Deservedly won The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort.”

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences3. I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – known for her award winning novel Hamnet, this is O’Farrell’s memoir told through multiple intriguing encounters with death. The opening story is heart-stopping and frightening, deliberately placed to capture attention.

An interesting insight is the awareness of her fearlessness, something that a brush with death seems to bolster, that fortunately motherhood will quell.

“It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”

constellations-sinead-gleeson4. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – In her Reflections on Life, Gleeson writes essays, using parts of the body to structure the narrative, a body containing metal like constellations of stars that front each chapter.

Her essays share the struggles, shame, hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief.  They bear witness to a deteriorating mind,  experiences that seem like weakness, that have contributed to moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring others.

Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

affair with mother5. An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer – an incredible adoption memoir written by an Irish journalist now living in the US, who has an experience in her mid twenties common to many adoptees, often referred to as “coming out of the fog”, when they realise that despite a happy childhood and apparent lack of effect of the trauma of relinquishment – something isn’t quite right. It’s a crisis that often results in them seeking to understand their identity, to know who they are, not who they were raised to be.

Palmer finds and meets her birth mother in Ireland, initially it is a positive experience, but the continued shame and fear of the mother, and her insistence on their connection remaining secret, compromises the connection.

In addition to sharing her story Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, researching archives and interviewing those affected. It’s an affecting, intimate account of real lives that continue to be impacted today, a cruel legacy of church and state judging and shaming young women, punishing innocent children.

“What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.”

Next Week: My Year In Irish Lit!

It’s Reading Ireland Month 2022

Irish Culture and Belfast

Cathy over at 746 Books runs an annual Reading Ireland celebration of books and culture every year in March, so I’m going to try and join in a little. Here in Week 1’s prompt, she shares her Top 5 Irish Movies, interest in Irish cinema currently ascending; Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast a hot contender for the Oscar Awards with seven nominations.

There are four weekly themes to explore and plenty of Irish books on my shelf to read, so you can expect to see a few reviews and other Irish related posts this month.

Reading Ireland logo 2022

More of Moore

In 2021, I joined in another of her challenges to celebrate the Northern Irish writer Brian Moore 100 who lived most of life in self-imposed exile abroad.

I read four of his novels throughout the year, Lies of Silence (1990) (a Northern Irish Troubles thriller), The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) (frustrating literary fiction), The Doctor’s Wife (1976) (slightly steamy literary fiction) and The Magician’s Wife (1997) (French/Algerian historical fiction).

As you can see below, I have a few more on the TBR to choose from, to read this year. And I’ll be writing more about the highlights of 2021 later in the month.

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBR

In addition to reading more Moore, I’m planning to read Mary Costello this year, more of Jan Carson, whose novel The Fire Starter’s I read last year, as well as her Postcard Stories.

NonFiction Looks Promising

I’m really looking forward to the two nonfiction titles in my pile, two nature writing memoir type books Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh and Saltwater in the Blood, Surfing, Natural Cycles and the Sea’s Power to Heal by Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer from County Donegal with a doctorate in Environment and Society.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsAnd perhaps most of all, I’m very excited about this upcoming collection of illustrated essays, photography, art and reporting, The Passenger, Ireland by Irish writers and journalists from Catherine Dunne to Colum McCann, Mark O’Connell and Sara Baume writing about their country in modern times. Due for publication on March 17 by Europa Editions, here’s an extract printed on the back cover:

“A country is composed of its people far more than its landscape. Let’s face it. We’re torturously poetic. We’re unbearably self-conscious. We’re awkwardly comic. We’re wilfully ambiguous. We’ll answer a question with another question. We’ll give you directions towards the exact place you don’t want to go. We’ll walk a hundred miles to receive a good insult. We’re blasphemous. We’re contrarian. We never forget a grudge. We address incomprehension. Our war songs are merry. Our love songs are sad. We have half-doors: we are neither in nor out. We make great fun of despair. And we’re marvellous at spouting rubbish about ourselves. (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) But we are also open to change. It is the eternal dream: to keep on becoming something new. The Irish have always had a great sense of humour, none more so than when their backs have been against the wall. The one thing that has never been given up on, in the Irish psyche, is the presumption of hope – and indeed the presumption of home.”

– From ‘Everything That Falls Must Also Rise’ by Colum McCann

Irish Lit Prompts

Finally, the weekly themes for Reading Ireland Month 2022 are:

Week 1: My Top 5 Irish …

  • for this prompt I’m going to choose my Top 5 Irish Fiction & NonFiction Books

Week 2: My Year in Irish Lit

  • a look at the highlights of reading Irish literature from 2021

Week 3: Irish or Not Irish?

  • Authors you didn’t realise were Irish or those you thought were, but aren’t – Hmm?

Week 4: New To My TBR

  • The punishment for getting involved in this monthly reading celebration, all the temptations to acquire more Irish literature, or how I came to get involved in the Brian Moore thing and all those Mary Costello novels. I’m going to try and resist, but I know I will fail.

So, any recommendations, a favourite Irish novel or book to share? Have you seen Belfast?

There There by Tommy Orange

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

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

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

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

web spider dreamcatcher there there Tommy Orange

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

powwow Tommy Orange There There

Photo by Ron Graham-Becker on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

Have you read There There? Share your thoughts below.

Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Entwined Narratives

Doctor Lenard Weber, the inventor

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

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

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

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

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

Frau Greta Hahn, the wife of an SS major

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

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

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

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

1000 citizens of Weimar

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

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

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

Former SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn, the husband, the major

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

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

Seeking Salvation Through Lies

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

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

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

The Consequence of Willful Blindness, Ignorance and Fear

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

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

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

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

And On It Goes

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

Remote sympathy is everywhere and nowhere.

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

Further Reading

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

Lisa at ANZLITLover’s review

Catherine Chidgey, Author

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

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

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

Dublin Literary Award longlist 2022

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

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

Translated Fiction

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

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

Dublin Literary Award Novels in Translation

International Judges

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

The Longlist

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

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

Dublin Literaary Award Longlist 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Have you read any of these novels that you recommend?