The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @ Pexels.com

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us better off?’

‘Because’, answered Pierre, ‘ by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

Top Reads of 2022

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

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

An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire

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

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

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

Books Read By Country

Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination

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

Books Read by Genre

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

One Outstanding Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Non-Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *  *  *  *  *  *

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

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet was the winning novel of the Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2020 and won the fiction prize at the National Book Critics Circle Awards (2020). It was author Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth novel.

Behind Every Great Man…Is An Often Untold Story

Anne Hathaway Shakespeares wife HamletSet in 1580’s Stratford, Warwickshire, the novel is about the meeting of two young people, their respective families, the life they create and the effect their twin children have on it.

Though the husband will become a famous playwright and name one of his plays after the son they lose, this isn’t a story that centres around him or his work, neither is it really about the son – those names are more like the bright lights that make us curious to see what the fuss is about.

Delightfully, it’s all about Agnes.

“If you ask someone what they know about Shakespeare’s wife, you’ll probably receive one of two answers. Either: he hated her. Or: she tricked him into marriage. Historians and biographers and critics have for a long time inexplicably vilified and criticized her, creating a very misogynistic version of her. I wanted to persuade people to think again, to not rush to conclusions.

We are so accustomed to calling her ‘Anne Hathaway’ but her father’s will clearly names her as ‘Agnes’. That was an electrifying, defining moment in the writing of the book. In giving her what is presumably her birth name, I’m asking readers to discard what we think we know about her and see her anew.” Maggie O’Farrell

Twin Everything

I expected to be gripped early on, so was surprised that it took a while to get into sync with the very descriptive, present tense, third person, omniscient narrative perspective. Initially it felt like listening to someone -while looking through a camera – describe in minute detail every single detail in the frame as it was moving quickly forward. 

It’s written in a dual narrative timeline in alternate chapters; the year that the twins fall ill and the year that these young parents meet. It is divided into two parts, Part 1 takes place before the death of Hamnet and the shorter Part 2, the aftermath.

The initial scene puts us in the eyes of this boy Hamnet as he rushes through his home and that of his grandparents, looking for someone, anyone, due to the sudden onset of deathly pestilence in his twin sister Judith.

Love Always Finds A Way

As the chapters switch between Hamnet’s alarm given the pending emergency and the year his parents met, we get to know his father, a Latin tutor, son of a glove maker/tyrant and his mother Agnes, a farmer’s daughter, living with her disapproving stepmother.

These young people become each others refuge from family situations they’d both like to escape. Agnes is highly intuitive, has an in-depth knowledge of herbalism and possesses a kestrel the local priest gave her. She is unlike other young women, self-possessed, ‘knowing’.

“Some have asked Susanna how her mother does it. They have sidled up to her in the market or out in the streets to demand how Agnes divines what a body needs or lacks or bursts with, how she can tell if a soul is restive or hankering, how she knows what a person or a heart hides.”

The novel traces their relationship, marriage and the sacrificial act that came from her ability to perceive what was best for her husband (facilitating his venturing to London to find and pursue his purpose) and what best for her three children, while highlighting the tragic demise of their son, a turning point in their relationship.

“She, like all mothers, constantly casts out her thoughts, like fishing lines, towards her children, reminding herself of where they are, what they are doing, how they fare.”

Even in the boys passing there is something mystical in the way it is rendered. The boy is a twin, but also the son of a woman in touch with nature and with a feeling for ‘the other side’. What Hamnet did to save his sister comes of both those mysteries.

How Women Shape The Lives of Others

Forget that the playwright Shakespeare is a character in this novel and read it for the unique individuals they might have been, as ordinary people in a community, coming together against the odds. I really enjoyed that this was so much more about Agnes and that she had gifts she seemed able to live with and use as a mature woman, without persecution. A result and reward of a difficult childhood, after the untimely death of her own mother.

“She grows up feeling wrong, out of place, too dark, too tall, too unruly, too opinionated, too silent, too strange. She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married. She grows up, too, with the memory of what it meant to be properly loved, for what you are, not what you ought to be.”

By deliberately not mentioning the husband’s name, we imagine this couple encountering each other, evolving together, moving apart and coming back together, for nothing can both unite and divide a couple quite like the grief of losing a child.

“What is given may be taken away at any time. Cruelty and devastation wait for you around corners, inside coffers, behind doors; they can leap out at you at any moment, like a thief or a brigand. The trick is to never let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget that they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye; borne away from you like thistledown.”

A novel of an auspicious pairing of souls, of longing and grief, of sacrifice and regret, I really enjoyed it after the slow start, despite the narrative perspective at times keeping me at a distance from the characters.  O’Farrell does such a brilliant job in re-imagining this much maligned character, it makes you want to read and know much more about Agnes. About the women whose lives were rarely scribed.

Maggie O’Farrell, Author

Hamnet The Marriage Portrait Shakespeares WifeMaggie O’Farrell is a Northern Irish novelist, now one of Britain’s most acclaimed and popular contemporary fiction authors whose work has been translated into over 30 languages. Her debut novel After You’d Gone won the Betty Trask Award and The Hand That First Held Mine the Costa Novel Award (2010).

She has written 9 novels and a superb memoir, I’ve reviewed here: I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death.

Her latest book set in Renaissance Italy, The Marriage Portrait, tells the story of a 16-year-old duchess and her fateful marriage to the Duke of Ferrara – based on the short life of Lucrezia de’ Medici.

I Will Die In A Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart

Many are reading literature from or about Ukraine at the moment, whether it is history, news reports, fiction or other. Below are a book and a diary I’m reading to both stay in touch and understand.

A Daily Reflection from A Woman in Kyiv

Ukranian author Yevgenia Belorusets lives in Kyiv, each day she writes from her neighbourhood, she goes out and meets people, takes a few pictures. You can read her very moving, human interest diary here.

Today she noticed cosy lights on in a café that has been closed since the beginning of the war:

Ukraine Coffee

Photo by E.Tariq on Pexels.com

I went inside and ordered a cappuccino, a drink I keep trying to find since the war started and, if successful, enjoy in a new way each time.

It is a game I play with myself. Every day I wonder if a coffee kiosk will be open on my route. When I get a cup, I’m immensely happy, as if I’ve received an unexpected gift.

The coffeehouse was open because an employee who had quit before the war offered to come back and work alone.

I Will Die In A Foreign Country, A Novel

Ukraine historical fictionI thought this was an excellent and exceptional novel, that I chose to read because it is too distressing and overwhelming to be bombarded with only the terrible news that is flooding us at the moment.

Rather than look away, here is a novel, whose intention is to pay homage to those who wish to preserve a culture, to protect their homes, to help the wounded, to ease the suffering of the dying, to sing their songs and tell their stories.

Kalani Pickhart is American, passionate about Ukranian history and culture and began to write this story in 2016, in the aftermath of the American elections.

In an interview with New Lines’ Lydia Wilson, Pickhart talks about her motivation and inspiration for writing this novel, which has come to the world at a time when many are trying to understand how these terrible patterns continue to repeat, and searching for some hope in a humanity that appears at times to have gone mad.

Ukraine 2013 – 2014

The novel is set in late 2013, early 2014 and on the opening page, there is a map of Ukraine and a timeline of events at Euromaidan (the site of mass protest), from November 21, 2013 the day the 4th President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, precipitating protests, until late 2014 when the last barriacades and tents were removed from the city of Kyiv.

The novel is about four fictional characters, whose paths cross during this time, the story goes back and forth in time. The text is interspersed with other voices, most chapter headings indicating the place, the date, the voice or a subject, pieces that connect the narrative. With its relatively concise chapters, the narrative never overwhelms, like pieces of a jigsaw, as the story evolves and events unfold, geography is traversed, people respond to what confronts them, understanding broadens, a picture emerges.

Kobzari, Singing

Kobzari musicians Kalani PIckhartThe first lines of the prologue are the collective voice of the Kobzari, whose story of persecution isn’t told until later in the book; like a Greek chorus, they recount aspects of Ukranina history, culture and tradition through the lyrics of song, ensuring a language, a culture and events can be carried forward to future generations.

Where does it begin? Ah, ah. Depends on who you ask…

It could begin with Scythians and Cimmerians, Slavs and the Rus’. Queen Olha. Vladmyr the Great. Yaroslav the Wise.

The Kobzari sing of events that will never be forgotten, like the church bells at St. Michael’s that rang in December 2013, something the church has only done once before: 800 years ago, against the Mongols. This collective voice slips into the narrative seamlessly, drip feeding the reader with an historical context.

Katya, the American Doctor

I Will Die in a Foreign Land Kalani Pickhart Literature UkraineKatya is a Boston based, American doctor, working with the wounded inside a temporary medical clinic at St Michaels monastery. She is an outsider, drawn to the country because she was orphaned there, but grew up in America with no connection to her birth country. Hers, like the author, is an outside perspective, one that wants to know, to connect, to understand.

She has temporarily removed herself from having to face a broken marriage in the aftermath of the death of her son.

Ekaterina, her mother and father named her when they took her home from the orphanage. Ekaterina the Great. Looking over Kyiv, Katya feels neither great nor pure. Her son is dead, her marriage is dead, and her birthplace is on fire.

The Captain

One of Katya’s patients is a man they refer to as Captain, only known to people because he would play an outdoor piano every day on the street during the protests. Katya finds a telephone number and a cassette in his pocket. The Captain’s story is narrated through the playing of an audio tape, created for his daughter Anna. He too is an outsider, a former officer, a man whose loyalties have been dictated to him, who is given little choice. He shares his story in an old oral tradition.

My mother was the one with the gift. She had a soft voice that warbled like a bird, but it was my father who wanted us to learn music. We learned the arts, my father said, to be civilized people because the world was at times a most uncivilized place. I often forgot he survived the war.

The Violence of Spring

One of the  (true) stories the Captain tells is of the composer Stravinsky’s controversial composition The Rite of Spring. He was invited by the Director of the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to collaborate in a ballet. The work was so modern, it attracted a youthful audience and a riot broke out inside the theatre as the traditionalist patrons in the crowd began hurling insults, clashing with youth.

In his notes, Stravinsky said it is an episodic ballet without a cohesive beginning-to-end narrative. Instead, the episodes are bound by one unifying thread: the mystery and the great surge of the power of Spring.

It is a violent ballet, a violent composition, taking place in pagan Russia. During the performance in 1913, the choreographer, Nijinsky, before he went mad, had the dancers move in contorted, disfigured ways. It was obscene, the audience thought – an abomination of the arts, of theatre, of ballet.

Intrigued, I looked this up, it was one of the most notorious ballet performances of the 20th century, shattering the conventions of both classical music and dance. Here is France Musique’s excellent explanation (3 mins).

Micha, Ukranian Engineer

Micha is a Ukranian protest, helping out, an engineer, originally from Chernobyl, who worked in the mines. He was married to his childhood friend Vera, who succumbed to sickness.

The Exclusion Zone

His home is near where Katya was born, they return to visit his mother, to reconnect with a lost part of her, before her return.

I didn’t think people could live there anymore, but I heard stories about some old women whose husbands died, the samosely. I tried to convince my mother not to return. She said it was the only place she ever felt at home. A couple hundred babushkas had returned and she went with them. Women in their seventies, eighties having survived Stalin, genocide.

Slava, Ukranian Protestor

Slava and Micha are friends, she is from Odessa, a place she ran from after what happened to her there, something that fuels her determination. Slava meets a journalist Dascha, their relationship puts them both at risk.

You said you once protested with FEMEN – that is also very brave, I feel we have similar views, that you’re accepting of me.

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

Lest We Forget

As I neared the end of the book, on page 268, I read six pages of names that traverse the globe in culture, nationality, language, showing just how interconnected the world today is. It was the Passenger and Crew Manifest read aloud at trial for the victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day I read those names, I read this article indicating that today Australia and the Netherlands  launched legal proceedings against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

Loss, when it occurs, has memory stronger than the mind, stronger than visual recollection patterned in the brain. It’s something the flesh knows, the muscles know, like a dancer reciting a step done hundreds of times, like a musician playing a song or a scale after decades without practice. It’s something the body knows, something the body is aware of while the mind adapts, responds, reacts.

Highly Recommended.

Further Reading/Listening

Podcast: Writing a Revolution: Ukraine’s Maidan Uprising — with Kalani Pickhart

Article: The Atlantic – What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia by Uilleam Blacker

Who Will Bury Me if I Die in a Foreign Land

Kalani Pickhart, Author

Kalani Pickhart, author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. An American, she is the recipient of research fellowships from the Virginia G. Piper Center and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence for Eastern European and Eurasian Studies.

She currently lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.

What is the act of love if not bold?

As the world comes apart, nothing to lose-

What is love if not a promise to go on?

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?

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year

In 2021 I read approximately 80 books. Less than in 2020 which was an exceptional year, when reading basically replaced external social activity and travel.

This year I’m sharing the best reads of the year over three separate posts; the overview and bigger picture seen from the stats here in Part 1 + My One Outstanding Read of the Year, Top Fiction Reads in Part 2 and Top Nonfiction in Part 3. And a few special mentions along the way.

Christmas reads literature in translationMy habit and ritual is to read a book a week, to read half an hour every morning and every evening, without fail. Now that I’m no longer required to fulfill the needs of little people in the early morning, a few pages accompanies my hot beverage to start the day and is like a reliable sedative that ensures I fall into easy sleep at night.

This year, it turns out I read a book and a half a week.

This change in rhythm and habit may explain why I’m reading more nonfiction, less escapism and imagination, more contemplative immersion.

Writing about reading is not only a pure joy it’s a way of decluttering; write a review, get rid of a book off the shelf, donate to the vide grenier!

So thank you to those who read and share the fun with me and apologies for email subscribers if I fill up your inboxes too rapidly at times.

The Stats

Over the years, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more women authors, to reverse a subconscious trend that had been occurring based on the exposure to reviews in traditional types of media. So now you could say I have a conscious bias towards women authors, this year representing 86%.

I know I’m missing out on some great storytelling, but I’ve become a little bit of a literary activist in this respect, so while Dalmon Galgut, the South African writer won the Booker Prize this year, I’m less likely to read The Promise, instead favouring another South African author Sindiwe Magona and her twin autobiographies, To My Children’s Children and Forced to Grow, two exceptional titles that deserve to be more widely known and read.

Reading Around the World

In 2021, I read books from 28 different countries, 87% of them were written in English and 13% translated from other languages. As you can see from the pie chart above, the Anglo-Saxon countries continue to dominate, although there was a much greater focus on Ireland than the UK, due to participating in the Brian Moore 100 read along.

The countries where authors originated from were US, Ireland, UK, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Canada, Uruguay, Italy, Cameroon, Nigeria, Lebanon, Jamaica, Zambia, Haiti, Chile, Antigua, Iran, Guadeloupe, Mexico, Kuwait, Hong Kong, Trinidad, Colombia, Japan.

Women In Translation

Best Reads of 2021At 13%, this was down on 2020 when 32% of my reads were in translation. This year I spent July/August focusing on a personal writing project so I didn’t participate in the usual Women in Translation August reading challenge.

Below, the breakdown by region.

Read Around the World 2021

Fiction Rules, Nonfiction Rises

Being a big fan of fiction, I was surprised to see this year that my nonfiction reads increased from 30% to 35%. It’s been a struggle to come up with a limited shortlist of favourites, as there were so many!

I read more multiple books by the same authors this year, for example in Nonfiction Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) and Deborah Levy (South Africa/UK), while in Fiction Brian Moore (Northern Ireland) and Sara Baume (Ireland).

Audio Books, E-Books, Paperback or Hardbacks

This year 78% of my reading came from off my bookshelf while 21% were e-books I read on a kindle.

Best Reads of 2021

There has been a significant upward trend in the reading/listening world towards audio books, a change I have not jumped into. I do have a daily half hour commute, but it’s through the countryside of Provence and being present to the local landscape is a pleasurable, mindful lead-up to the work I do.

I think it is interesting and encouraging though, that many are rediscovering literature through having someone read to them aloud, something that each generation has valued, from the radio listening days before television, to podcasts to audiobooks, not to mention the nostalgia of childhood, having stories read to us. I can still remember the excited anticipation of sitting on the mat in primary school, at that hour of the day that the teacher would continue with a longer story that was being read to the class.

What Mood of Book Do We Gravitate Towards?

There’s a new app for storing your reading library called The Storygraph. It’s interesting though I don’t think it matches what I get from Goodreads yet, but one thing it does is analyse your reading by mood and pace. So I have discovered that I tend to read more slow and medium paced books, only 2% are fast paced! So it appears I’m fast at reading slow paced books and slow at reading fast paced? Here’s the breakdown for 2021.

Mood of Book 2021

The three main moods of the books I read according to this are Reflective, Emotional and Challenging!

Outstanding Book of the Year 2021

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAnd so to my One Outstanding Read of the Year, which thinking about it, combines a little of everything that appeals to me.

It is fiction, but based on the real life of a woman, so it has the best of what fiction offers through being able to reimagine a voice and the authenticity of nonfiction in using the life, the achievements, the poetry and self expression of a woman to channel her story. And it takes me to another country and culture, to open the mind and yet observe the universal.

Beyond Black There is No Colour : The Story of Forough Farrokhzad by Maryam Diener not only is my favourite and One Outstanding Read of 2021, but surely it is one of the least publicized and underrated books of the year.

Forough Farrokhzad, poet, mother, feminist, film-maker, radical, was one of the most iconic dissenting voices in modern Iranian history.

Maryam Diener reimagines the life of the young revolutionary poet in this heart-felt novella, portraying a young woman who desired to be authentic and write from the core of her being about her emotional life, loves and losses, in a way that no woman in her country before her had ever dared.

At only 150 pages, Diener has chosen certain events in Farrokhzad’s life from her childhood, marriage, her success with poetry and its contribution to the dissolution of her family life, her love for her son and the way she pours herself into her creative output, including film.

“What sets [Farrokhzad] apart from her predecessors and even her contemporary women writers is her rendering of quotidian experience with no intention to guide, to educate, to lead…(her) poetry is an accurate portrayal of the pain and pleasure of a whole generation undergoing radical change.” Iranian Scholar, Farzaneh Milani

It’s Outstanding and like nothing else I have read this year. This is the one slim book that rises to the top of the pile for me, one that haunts the reader, that leaves a legacy, that cuts a path for other women to step in to and follow.

And so next up My Top Fiction so 2021…

Did you have one book that stood out from all the rest this year? If so, share it in the comments below.

The Magician’s Wife by Brian Moore (1997)

The Magician’s Wife is historical fiction, set in 1856 France and Algeria.

Brian Moore 100

This is the final read for #BrianMoore100, a year of reading his novel’s in what would been the Northern Irish novelist’s 100th year.

This year, I managed to read and review Lies of SilenceThe Lonely Passion of Judith HearneThe Doctor’s Wife and now The Magician’s Wife. I enjoyed all of them and plan to continue reading more of his work in the year ahead.

Gustave Flaubert and George Sand’s Letters

According to New York Times essayist and reviewer Thomas Mallon, Brian Moore, in discussing the origins of The Magician’s Wife, gave credit to a note in Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray’s translation of The Correspondence of George Sand & Gustave Flaubert.

Flaubert was complaining about the French government and their political priorities, and in his letter to Sand he writes:

“But before concerning ourselves with “social security” and even with agriculture, we send a Robert-Houdin to all the villages of France to work miracles!”

The associated footnote further explains:

In 1856 the French government had sent the celebrated conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to North Africa in an attempt to destroy the nefarious influence of the marabouts on the native population. His feats, announced as “miracles”, were a great success.

Strangely, the footnote erroneously names the magician in parentheses as Houdini, however, Harry Houdini changed his name (from Ehrich Weisz) in honour of his mentor Robert-Houdin.

In the novel, the character of the magician, Henri Lambert, is inspired by the historical character of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Review

France 1856 Algeria Robert Houdin MaraboutsBeing historical fiction, The Magician’s Wife became one of those books that I often put down to look up the historical characters, such as Napoleon III (the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte – he was the son of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais who married Napoleon’s brother Louis) and his wife, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. His reign was referred to as the Second Empire and lasted for 18 years (1852-1870).

The first half of the novel is set in France, in Tours, the home of the magician and his wife Emmeline, briefly in Paris, where she is outfitted for the pending visit to one of the Emperor’s chateau.

The second half is set in Algeria, in the cities of Algiers and Milianah.

The Emperor’s Invitation

When the magician Henri Lambert is visited by a highly ranked Colonel Deniau and subsequently invited by the Emperor to the autumn residence, Château de Compiègne for a week of events and festivities, Emmeline is curious as to why these men of politics are interested in her husband and unimpressed by the activities they drag her into.

napoleon III Second empire The Magicians Wife Brian MooreIt becomes clear, that this particular série or group of invitees, are people whose influence might be required, to assist the ruler in his campaigns.

Emmeline looked down the long table to where Lambert was as usual in animated conversation with his fellow diners. Not a first-tier série, this man says. Foreigners, bankers, people the Emperor wants to use in some way. What can he want from Henri?

Because the narrative is seen through the eyes of Emmeline, it remains a mystery for some time as to what use the magician might be to the Emperor, however both the Colonel and Napoleon III attempt to bring her close, in order to help persuade her husband of the mission they have in mind for him.

Colonial Conspirators

They want the Magician and his wife to go to Algeria, to perform tricks of illusion, posing as a superior French version of their influential marabouts (a kind of spiritual leader/healer/wise man), in order to inculcate fear of their power and diminish faith in their spiritual leadership. It was an attempt to destabilise and weaken people in preparation for the French armies to continue their conquest and colonisation of the country.

“There, marabouts or saints have a political and spiritual influence which is greater than the power of any ruler…And because of that, only the marabout can proclaim a jihad or holy war against us. At the moment, Your Majesty, all of Algeria is in thrall to a certain Bou-Aziz, a charismatic marabout who has risen up in the south and is said to possess miraculous powers.”

The Female Gaze

Brian Moore Algeria 1856 Magicians Wife

Photo by Noureddine Belfethi on Pexels.com

It is a fascinating story and all the more interesting because Moore chooses to view events and see those involved in this ‘act of illusion’ through the eyes of the accompanying wife.

Emmeline is never quite in support of the events she is dragged along to participate in, openly showing her disapproval despite their promises to elevate her and her husband in society.

Bored by her provincial marriage and uneventful home life, she briefly considers a liaison with the Colonel, initially responding to his attention, though sees through his contrived flattery and begins to resent him, seeing that he too is looking for acclaim and willing to use whatever means necessary.

A Desert Awakening

The Colonel warns her that a visit to Algeria will change her, and this perhaps is the only truth he speaks, for she has a kind of awakening herself, though not in a way that necessarily benefits the mission they are on.

The turning point for her comes, when their servant Jules falls sick and she is the only one to comfort him. What she learns about him in this little time they spend together, awakens her to certain realities about their lives and the impact of what they are doing there. She becomes the sole voice of conscience with regard to this duplicitous mission, moved by the words and aura of the spiritual leader.

She thought of Bou-Aziz, of his grave, dignified speech, of his resolve to pray for God’s guidance. And in that moment in the courtyard of a French fort surrounded by illimitable desert she remembered the Emperor’s study in Compiègne, the Emperor with his waxed moustaches and his lecher’s smile, puffing on his long cigar. ‘I have great plans for Algeria. In the spring, I will bring our armies to Africa, subdue the Kabylia region and complete our conquest of the entire country.’ But this conquest that the Emperor desired would not ‘civilise’ these people as he promised but instead bring more forts, more soldiers, more roads, more French colonists to profit from Algeria’s trade and crops. And more mahdis, more jihads, more repression.

It is extraordinary that Moore chose to write about this intriguing piece of history, given he was an Irish author living in exile in America, writing about French political activities in Algeria. As is to be expected, though it is a history far from home, he succeeds in making the story a conduit for many of his themes and literary preoccupations.

It was an insightful and sympathetic reading journey, to read about this period and event in history, from an alternative perspective, painted by the outsider, written through the eyes of another Brian Moore protagonist, a viewpoint he favoured, that of a woman.

And I’ll certainly be adding the Château de Compiègne to my list of near future places to visit.

Further Reading

Article New York Times: Sleight of Hand by Thomas Mallon

France Inter: Robert Houdin, un sorcier blanc en Algérie Dec 5, 2021

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photography of fruits on a tray

Photo Valeria Boltneva @Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Interview: A Conversation with Afia Atakora on Conjure Women

Afia Atakora

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

 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

A historical fiction novel about words both entices and because of its popularity also made me hesitate.

Background

Scottish lexicographer Dr James Murray was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1884. The only word Dr Murray ever conceded had been overlooked was “bondmaid”, meaning a girl bound to serve without wages.

When author Pip Williams discovered this omission, the idea for her debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, was born. Jenny Valentish, Guardian

Pip Williams Language Words DictionaryAnd so I dive in and find myself often using the dictionary feature on the kindle – yes there are a lot of lost words, or words that are no longer in common use, and one of the main words, and locations, the scriptorium had me confused right from the start – a tin shed where a few learned, self-important men are compiling the first edition of the Oxford dictionary? Even as I write these words, the spellcheck has underlined that word in red.

We are introduced to this place and the main character Esme as she is crawling around beneath the table in this scriptorium, we don’t understand a lot about why she is there, as her father appears to be raising her alone without childcare.

A slow build up in the early years, the pace picks up finally when Esme is old enough to go to town and meet a few unconventional women and hears new to her ears, ancient popular but unknown words, and when she meets Tilda, an actor and suffragette her vocabularly and life experience widen even further.

It is the late 1880’s, an era of slow progress, both on the dictionary and on the rights of women.

black and white book business close up

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Esme grows up and begins to work with her father, collecting “slips” and the necessary quotations, that give words the right to be part of this grand dictionary.

The problem being that much of a women’s world is left out, words that have existed, often for centuries, but have either not been written in any notable works or are deemed not appropriate for polite society. 

Esme has found her calling.

It’s an interesting journey through a particular period of history, though I found the character of Esme to be a little two-dimensional compared to some of the secondary characters and one of the characters appears mostly through letters, which rather than illuminate some of the mysteries in Esme’s life, just had me asking why this one character if she was so important to her life, wasn’t present. The story seemed to lose pace towards the end or perhaps just went on too long, as I began to lose interest.

There are moments of humour, but also predictability – in Esme’s 30’s her like of words pertaining to women and the poor are discovered by the villainous Dankworth, as the slips flutter to the floor, who should arrive but her literary knight (not yet in armour) Gareth, the compositeur. She ponders the words “manhandled, pillock and git”.

A slow consciousness raising and cast of characters across the class divine in Oxford, with the controlled compilation of the Dictionary at the centre of it.

Further Reading

Guardian Books: All words are not equal’: the debut novelist who’s become a lockdown sensation by Jenny Valentish

Lisa’s Review at ANZLitLover’s – a more passionate take on the history and the bias resulting from it being a virtually male endeavour

Guardian Review: A Gentle Hopeful Story