A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux tr. Tanya Leslie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Ernaux, Author

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

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

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

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

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

A Sister’s Story by Donatella Di Pietrantonio tr. Ann Goldstein

We first encountered the two sisters in an earlier novel, A Girl Returned. At the time they first met, the elder, the narrator, was being returned to her parents without explanation, 13 years after having been adopted and raised by another couple.

She had given me to another woman to bring up, and yet I had remained her daughter. I will be forever.

Though raised in different neighbourhoods, circumstances, economic conditions and under extremely different parenting, from the moment Adriana first encountered her previously unknown older sister, she became attached, fiercely. Of their mother, our narrator had mixed feelings.

She roused in me an inextricable knot of tenderness and revulsion…

My mother occupied me inside, true and fierce. She remained in large part unknown: I never penetrated the mystery of her hidden affection.

Ann Goldstein Italian literatureIn A Sister’s Story, we encounter them again; the novel opens with the recall of a graduation celebration at Piero’s parent’s country home. Again the novel is narrated by the unnamed elder sister.

I have a photograph of the two of us, in love, looking at each other, Piero with the laurel on his head, eyes of devotion. At the edge of the frame Adriana appears: she entered the shot at the last moment, and her image is blurry, her hair draws a brown wake. She has never been tactful, she interjects herself into everything that has to do with me as if it were hers, including Piero. For her he wasn’t very different from a brother, but nice. My sister is laughing blithely at the lens, ignorant of what was to come for us.

As the narrative returns to the present, the elder sister awakes in a hotel, having travelled overnight from Grenoble back to Italy, confused memories interrupt her thoughts, the result of a telephone call she received that set her out on this journey.

In a now familiar style, unique to Donatella Di Pietrantiono, the present is a mystery, we don’t know why she has returned to where her family came from or what the phone call was about, there is much to fill in since she left. It is clear she has cut ties with many people from her past; the phone call reluctantly yet urgently drawing her back.

Related but moulded by different values and role models the sisters held different aspirations and expectations and behaved nothing like each other. They are deeply connected strangers.

As children we were inseparable, then we had learned to lose each other. She could leave me without news of herself for months, but it had never been this long. She seemed to obey a nomadic instinct: when a place no longer suited her, she abandoned it. Every so often our mother said to her: you’re a Gypsy. Later I was, too, in another way.

photo of teenage girls sitting on the pavement

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The last time the sister’s saw each other, Adriana arrived on her doorstep with a baby, named after their belated brother Vincenzo, denying she was in any danger.

The novel, while moving towards the revelation of the telephone call, explores the complicated relationship between sisters who’ve been formed and wired differently, their desire and struggle to be around each other, their bond and indifference, their separate struggles and opposite ways of dealing with them.

I don’t know when I lost her, where our intimacy was stranded. I can’t trace it to a precise moment, a decisive episode, a quarrel. We only surrendered to distance, or maybe it was what we were secretly looking for: repose, shaking each other off.

It’s an enjoyable read, enhanced by having read the earlier story;  while the first novel was compelling and urgent in a way that made me not want to put it down, the sequel was reflective and mysterious. I enjoyed seeing how the sisters evolved into adulthood in such different ways, trying to hold on to their connection, challenged by the ongoing effect of those formative years.

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for providing me with a review copy.

Best Books Read in 2021 Part 2: Top 10 Fiction

Best Books of 2021 Autofiction Forough FarrokhzadAs mentioned in my previous post, my One Outstanding Read of The Year for 2021 was Maryam Diener’s Beyond Black There is No Colour: The Story of Forough Farrokhzad (2020), a work of fiction written in the first person, a novella that stays true to the life of Iranian poet and film-maker Forough Farrokhzad.

Heartfelt, illuminating, inspiring, a beautiful telling of an exceptional life.

Top 10 Fiction 2021

If you’ve seen that post, you’ll have seen that I read books from around the world, so no surprise that my Top 10 Fiction reads come from 9 different countries. In no particular order, but grouped thematically, here are my favourite fiction reads of the year, click on the title to read the original review:

Native Wisdom and Legacy from the Antipodes

Maori Literature Modern Classic1. Potiki by Patricia Grace (NZ) (1986) – First published in New Zealand 35 years ago and now published in the UK as a Penguin modern classic, the timeless narrative of Potiki is a demonstration of the clash of cultures, of the native against the coloniser, of the attempt to maintain a way of life that is perceived as backward against the encroachment of a capitalist driven greed that is willing to use whatever means necessary to get what it wants.

Through thoughtful character creation and storytelling around Hemi and Roimata’s tangata whenua (family) and their circumstance, it infiltrates the cultural differences and attitudes that exist and how the actions of those in power with their single agenda, affect a people whose way of life, customs and beliefs are different.

A tour de force, I absolutely loved it. A classic indeed.

Indigenous Literature Aboriginal Australia2. The Yield by Tara June Winch (Australia) (2019) – Coincidentally, shortly after reading Potiki, I picked up the award winning Australian contemporary novel The Yield, which tells a layered story of the Aboriginal connection to the land, their language and customs.

A story told in three voices and narrative perspectives, Grandfather Poppy’s voice speaks from the past, sharing words in a dictionary he was creating. Threaded throughout the text, his words preserve a culture, they are evidence that a civilisation existed, one that was threatened with extinction. His granddaughter has returned from abroad and is trying to save the family from eviction. And the Reverend’s letters from the 1800’s which shed light on the past.

African Appreciation and Perspective

Colonialism Capitalism Envirnmental Pollution Africa Literary fiction3. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (Cameroon/US) (2021) – With a not dissimilar theme, set in an(y) African village, Mbue’s characters are named after actual cities and towns. It is the 70’s and the inhabitants are suffering ill health from the effect of pollution of the water table, so they decide to address the local leadership.

The story, narrated through different members of Thula’s family and the collective “we” of her friends, follows each generation’s attempt to seek justice and retribution, and the increasing complexity of resistance, as the narrative moves from the past up to the present.

An allegory for all those without political influence living with the damaging effects of the disrespect of the land, the Earth, of not seeing her as the Mother or our connection to her; it’s an absolute must read, sure to become a classic.

The First Woman Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi4. The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda/UK) (2020) – this was hotly anticipated given her debut novel Kintu was my One Outstanding Read of 2018 and equally brilliant in its character formation and storytelling. Definitely a favourite author.

Set in Uganda, it is the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, as she becomes aware of a mystery surrounding her birth. Of a silence. Her grandmother tells her she has “the original state” of the first woman in her, part of the enigma she will come to understand.

As with Kintu, Makumbi steps beyond colonial influence, almost entirely removing it, to tell an authentic, far reaching story of a primeval culture and its women. In the US, it’s titled A Girl Is A Body of Water.

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UK5. The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia (Nigeria/Canada) (2021) – Set in Nigeria, as the story begins we meet two women Nwabulu and Julie, who will pass days imprisoned together waiting for their families to respond to a ransom request.

The alternating narrative returns us to the beginning, to their separate, contrasting lives, that lead them to this drama, while exploring the influence and impact on them and all women, of Nigerian society’s elevation in importance of “the son of the house“.

It is a clever, very human exploration of class, family lives disrupted, parental influence, the tenacity and resilience of women, of their ‘survive and thrive’ instinct as they navigate a man’s world.

A riveting and insightful read, and an exceptional new literary voice.

Irish Reflection and Resistance to Conformity

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Miterary Fiction6. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2015) – This was my very first book of the year, and one I chose because I adore and still think about and implore people to read her work of nonfiction Handiwork, the first of her books I read in 2020. I was curious to see what Baume’s fiction would be like and what a joyful and unique encounter it has been.

We meet a hermit-like 57 year old man (except I read the whole novel intermittently imagining I’m reading/seeing through the eyes of a character more like Baume) and OneEye, the injured, undisciplined dog who he has taken in, who he is thinking and talking to, in this second person “you” narrative. As we get to know him, we learn how out of character that was and the trouble it has caused, while following his road-trip attempt to flee the situation and himself (+ dog) altogether.

It’s a slow unravelling, beautifully written and cleverly constructed journey, with a surprise twist, that was pure joy to read. Reflective, poignant and daring, it’s one you’ll keep thinking about long after reading.

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist7. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume (Ireland) (2017) – I can’t help it, she’s become one my current favourite authors, so I end the year reading the 2nd novel by Sara Baume and again have an impression of reading autofiction. 

26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and moves home, then a week later into her grandmother’s abandoned, neglected (for sale) home. She’s taking time out, but rather than mope about, takes charge of her situation, starts an art project and tests herself on works on art, remembering.

It’s a novel about a young woman in a transition, learning something about herself, with the shadow and memory of her grandmother over her, healing from life. Extraordinary.

And very pleased to hear a new novel Seven Steeples is due out in April 2022!

Women in Translation

The year wouldn’t be complete without fiction from other countries in translation and though I didn’t read during August’s WIT Month, I did still read a few titles throughout the year and these three really stood out as firm favourites. And not surprisingly, they’re from my three favourite independent presses!

Women Wait for Their Men & The Empty Nest Unhinges Her

Winter Flowers Angélique Villeneuve8. Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (France) tr. Adriana Hunter (WWI) (2021) Peirene Press an utterly compelling novella, set in the closing days of WWI that delves into the lives and perspective of a young woman Jeanne and her daughter as they wait for her injured husband to return. He’s been rehabilitating in a facial injury hospital and has forbidden her to visit. Now he returns and we witness the change.

Unlike many war stories, this is not about the active participants, but the unseen, unheard, rarely if ever spoken about, aftermath. Written with profound empathy and courage, it’s intense, riveting and unforgettable.

Women in Translation Mexico9. Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott (Mexico) (2019) Charco Press – this totally took me by surprise, languishing on my shelf not realising the playful literary gem that lay within. 

 Inspired by Lozano’s contemplation of The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – it’s the circular loop of the anti-hero story, the inner journey of the one who waits; revealing the way that contemplation and observation reveal understanding and epiphanies. In her notebooks she observes the familiar and unfamiliar around her, sees patterns, imagines connections, dreams and catastrophises. Wild is the Wind.

Odysseus, he of the many twists and turns. Penelope, she of the many twists and turns without moving from her armchair. Weaving the notebook by day, unravelling it by night.

Pure fun, slightly quirky, lightheartedly philosophical, many unexpected laugh out loud moments. Loved it!

psychological thriller film Italian10. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italy) (2008) Europa EditionsLast but certainly not least, the only Ferrante novel I had not yet read, and the shortest (so if you haven’t ventured yet perhaps try this before the My Brilliant Friend tetralogy). With the film due to hit the screens, I wanted to read it before being tempted to watch.

For me, The Days of Abandonment was Ferrante’s most intense reading experience, while this novel lulls the reader into a deliciously, false sense of anticipated joy, especially for any women approaching the empty nest era of life and dreaming of an idyllic Mediterranean beach holiday. It’s a story that zooms in on another ‘moment in life’, transition, where freedom and longing clash with frustration and resentment, as subconscious memories (and perhaps unbalanced hormones) project themselves onto the present, inappropriately, dangerously.

It’s both reminiscent and inviting, until it’s disrupted, Ferrante writing is so evocative in creating a sense of place and mood, and getting into the dark shadow mind of her characters.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Let me know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of the above, or share any of your own favourite reads of 2021 in the comments below!

Next up Top Non Fiction Reads of 2021…

 

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.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer who writes atmospheric, slice of life novellas on an aspect of Irish life. I read her novella Foster some years ago, a touching and eerie story of a girl caught between two sets of parents, that is unsettling, though never quite reveals the source of this tension, that is left somewhat to the reader’s imagination.

Small Things Like These is set in an Irish town in 1985 in the lead up Christmas. Bill Furlong, a father of five daughters is a coal merchant, raised by a single mother who was a housemaid for an upper class woman who allowed her to keep her son with her. The story recalls an event that occurs at the nearby convent, when Bill is making his deliveries and we observe different members of the community’s reaction to that.

Irish literature Magdalen laundries shaming mothers religious oppressionI admire the way Claire Keegan creates atmosphere and a sense of place, I could well imagine the small Irish town they lived, the cold, the workplace, the river – although I had to keep reminding myself it was the 1980’s and that there was electricity. Bill’s deliveries of wood and coal and the way the women made it feel like a much earlier era, though I don’t doubt it was freezing then as few could afford to heat their homes by other means.

The character of Bill Furlong was interesting and held potential, both due to the unique circumstance of his upbringing, which made him an empathetic character, and the fact that his wife and other women in the community had a different opinion or perception to his, regarding the situation that he will be confronted with.

The blow was cheap but it was the first he’d heard from her, in all their years together. Something small and hard gathered in his throat then which he tried but felt unable to say or swallow. In the finish, he could neither swallow it down nor find any words to ease what had come between them.

magdalen laundries adoption Ireland patriarchy

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Furlong was one of very, very few babies born to a woman out out wedlock who got to stay with his mother, due to the generosity of his mother’s employer.

When we meet him he is a grown married man with daughters, with his own business, though still struggling and not able to imagine a time when that might change. There is something in him that is unsettled despite his circumstance, something slowly revealed that he seeks liberation from.

On making a delivery to the nearby convent, where his daughters are at school, he becomes aware of the fact there are other young women there, who work with the nuns and provide the community with laundry services.

It is a subtly consciousness raising novel yet somewhat ironic and convenient to this reader that the empathetic character is a working man with daughters. While the story conveniently sidesteps the significant issues, it takes a provocative stance in choosing to instill empathy in a character, who represents generally, the one we never look at – the boy involved, the father or brother who punished their daughter/sister, or the decision maker’s of the institutions (church and state) that carried out the punishment of these young women. In this respect, the premise of the novel feels totally unrealistic, a Disney-like fantasy. The reality is that it is very likely no one ever did was Bill purports to do here.

Claire Keegan Small Things Like These Men With EmpathyIt made me recall another character, Albert, from the film Made in Dagenham, who was initially the only man who supported a group of female factory workers fighting for equal rights at the Ford Dagenham factory in 1968 – the reason he supported them was because he had been raised by a single mother – perhaps there is something to be said for the development of a deeper empathy in men who’ve been raised by single mothers.

One of the other things that did stand out was the prevalence and contribution of community gossip to the development of judgement and insinuation. He is warned by the woman running the café where his men eat lunch.

‘Tis no affair of mine, you understand, but you know you’d want to watch over what you’d say about what’s there?’

Those that listen to and contribute to gossip are of a different kind than those who respond to an injustice that was right in front of them, despite it being none of their business. Bill was of the latter.

Overall, I felt like this novel had only just begun and then it was over; it left me with too many questions and felt like it was set in a time that was decades earlier than the 1985. It read more like a promising beginning, than a complete novel. Deliberately provocative perhaps.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC via NetGalley.

Warning: Likely to trigger adoptees or any woman coerced by society, to give up a child to adoption.

What Were The Magdalene Laundries?

A Campaign for Justice Mothers AdopteesFrom the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922 until 1996, at least 10,000 girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland’s Magdalene Institutions. These were carceral, punitive institutions that ran commercial and for-profit businesses primarily laundries and needlework.

After 1922, the Magdalene Laundries were operated by four religious orders (The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters) in ten different locations around Ireland. The last Magdalene Laundry ceased operating on 25th October, 1996.

The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included those who were perceived to be ‘promiscuous’, unmarried mothers, the daughters of unmarried mothers, those who were considered a burden on their families or the State, those who had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State.

Confined for decades on end – and isolated from their families and society at large – many of these women became institutionalised over time and therefore became utterly dependent on the relevant convents and were thus unfit to re-enter society unaided.

Further Reading

Guardian Interview: The acclaimed Irish writer on writing short works, the Magdalene Laundries and her new hobby, horse training by Claire Armistead

Article: How Ireland Turned ‘Fallen Women’ Into Slaves

Book: Ireland and the Magdalene Laundries: A Campaign For Justice by Katherine O’Donnell – Sept 2021 – a devastating and vital account of life behind the high walls of Ireland’s institutions, featuring original research and testimony + the continued campaign for justice for victims and to advance public knowledge and research.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

Though it is a relatively slim book compared to what we have come to expect from Elena Ferrante, this novel is just as effective as others at getting to the crux of a woman’s suppressed wound and subsequent behaviour, leaving the reader much to reflect on.

psychological thriller film ItalianI just love the way her novels cast women in various stages of life, and this one, like Troubling Love is set over a summer, but couldn’t be more different, despite the common element of intensity. Our protagonist here is an empty nester.

In The Lost Daughter, an ambiguous title that is left to the reader to decide, Leda, a middle aged divorcée, is facing a long summer; her young adult daughters have now left home, moving to Canada to be with their father.

For the first time in almost twenty-five years I was not aware of the anxiety of having to take care of them.

Though she speaks with them every day, the closeness they had when they were physically present, creates a space, an absence, that begins to fill with other memories, that reach further back to her own childhood.

Freedom and Longing

As the novel opens, she has decided to depart for the summer to the beach, renting an apartment in a seaside town and is looking forward to the freedom. A Professor of English literature, she has brought her work with her, balancing her time between preparation for the year ahead and relaxing at the beach.

I love the scent of resin: as a child, I spent summers on beaches not yet completely eaten away by the concrete of the Camorra – they began where the pinewood ended. That scent was the scent of vacation, of the summer games of childhood.

She drives out of town to find a quiet place and this becomes her preferred beach for the summer. Parked under the pines, she walks through the wooded area to the small beach beyond.

In less than a week, it had all become a peaceful routine. I liked the squeak of the pinecones opening to the sun as I cross the pinewood, the scent of small green leaves that seemed to be myrtle, the strips of bark peeling off the eucalyptus trees.

motherhood obsession Maggie GyllenhaalShe becomes acquainted with the regulars, the boy who puts out the chairs and umbrellas, a young woman with her child, a pregnant woman – part of a large Neapolitan family.

She doesn’t know them, but they feel familiar, they remind her of the family she grew up in, the family she moved away from, both physically and literally.

They were all related, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and their laughter rang out noisily. They called each by name with drawn out cries, hurled exclamatory or conspiratorial comments, at times quarreled: a large family group, similar to the one I had been part of when I was a girl, the same jokes, the same sentimentality, the same rages.

Observation and Obsession

She watches in particular, the young mother Nina, and her daughter Lena, eventually engaging with them, observing the family dynamics, revisiting old feelings, remembering events from the past.

She talked to the child and her doll in the pleasing cadence of the Neapolitan dialect that I love, the tender language of playfulness and sweet nothings. I was enchanted. Languages for me have a secret venom that every so often foams up and for which there is no antidote.  I remember the dialect on my mother’s lips when she lost that gentle cadence and yelled at us, poisoned by her unhappiness: I can’t take you anymore, I can’t take any more…That woman, Nina, seemed serene, and I felt envious.

The Lost Daughter Elena Ferrante doll little girl the past

Photo by Isabella CarvalhoPexels.com

When a small drama occurs, it creates an opportunity for her to interact with them; it is from this moment the tension mounts and we realise there is much we do not know about our protagonist, about her motivations for acting the way she does. A sense of unease permeates.

I loved the way this begins like a joyful beach read, the feeling of the end of a teaching year, a mature woman about to enjoy a summer without responsibilities, her children gone, the only clue to something more sinister in the air, a reference halfway to her destination, when an unprompted feeling from the past arises and changes her mood.

It is the promise there is more to this woman than what we have witnessed thus far. We read attentively, alert to anything that seems odd, wondering what might be causing her to be so attentive to this family.

When you finish reading this novella, as I have just discovered now, a few days after finishing it, if you want to experience one final gasp of realisation, go back and reread the first page, that first one page chapter.

The Lost Daughter, The Film

I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what Director Maggie Gyllenhaal and Actor Olivia Colman will bring to the text, in the film that is due to come to the screen at the end of December.

Gyllenhaal is said to have written a letter to Ferrante asking if she could adapt the novel, to which Ferrante responded yes, if she were to direct it herself. The premiere at the Venice Film Festival received a four minute standing ovation.

The thing that drew her to Ferrante, she said, was the writer’s ability to say “these things out loud that I hadn’t really heard anyone say out loud, about mothering, about sex, about desire, about the intellectual life of women, about the artistic life of women.”

You can watch the trailer here.

Further Reading

Interview Guardian, Aug 2020: Elena Ferrante: ‘We don’t have to fear change, what is other shouldn’t frighten us’

Screenrant Film Review, Oct 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter Is Exquisite & Nuanced by Mae Abdulbaki

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

I was hesitant to start this knowing it was the last of Sara Baume’s books I had on my shelf to read. I find her work so nourishing and unique, she’s quickly become one of my favourite authors. So what joy, part way through reading this, to learn there is a novel due out in Apr 2022, Seven Steeples.

Navigating the In-Between

Irish literary fiction Visual ArtistA Line Made By Walking takes place over one summer when 26 year old Frankie quits her Dublin bedsit and returns briefly to her parent’s home, before deciding to move temporarily into her grandmother’s slightly decrepit cottage that has long been on the market, since her death over a year ago.

It is a place where she can wallow and wait out a period of depression, create something meaningful, take walks, cycle and test herself on works of art. Her art school days are over, but finding meaning through artistic expression, looking for and noticing it around her, remains important, necessary.

“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.”

Art Creates Structure

Each chapter is titled with a different roadkill or animal species (not living) she has encountered nearby. Everything in the vicinity, plus her stream of consciousness thoughts, link together to create a seamless narrative, like the ripples of a stream bubbling over stones, moving around obstacles. Separate but part of something whole.

Sara Baume Irish literature Bicycle Cycling Ireland

Photo by Bogdan R. Anton on Pexels.com

Though she is not herself at this time, Frankie creates purpose in each day, and while not under observation, makes slow progress. Her mother worries, but allows her the freedom she needs. She resists conventional treatment and takes quiet charge of her own healing.

My parents did not want me to come here to stay. They are, like everybody, fearful of being completely alone and suspicious of people who choose to be. They hesitate, like everybody, to understand how it could heal me, as I believe it can. I believe: I am less fearful of being alone than I am of not being alone.

She fixes the bicycle in the shed and establishes a routine and purpose, an affirmation of the natural order of things, that all life passes. Her grandmother, the dog, a robin, rabbit, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. Her photographs grace each chapter.

“Here is another rule for my project: no pets, only wild things. So it can be about the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.”

Artwork Word Association

Though it possesses the barest of plots, I loved it’s meandering style and waymarker structure through an incredible recollection of over seventy art installations, like rabbit holes the reader can burrow into, something Baume encourages us to do.

I urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.

A Line Made By Walking Sara BaumeThe line made by walking crops up three or four times in the novel, in reference to artworks, the first time in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows (1890) and represents the division between the field and sky, the sadness inherent in life. It was his final painting.

Having left the city behind, the narrative is as much immersed in the observations of nature around her, in the discoveries to be made on a walk, a cycle, a drive, a visit somewhere; her poetic voice making even the mundane mesmerising.

Again, the novel reads for me, as if the author is speaking, I forget there is a fictional protagonist, after reading her nonfiction Handiwork and listening to Sara Baume talk about her own art making projects, her presence is always there, lurking within the brush strokes of her characters.

Absolutely loved it.

Further Reading/Listening

Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain : “An artist, first and foremost”. An Interview with Sara Baume by Margarita Estévez-Saá

Guardian Interview: Sara Baume: ‘I always wanted to be an art monster’ Feb 2017, Alex Clark

Sara Baume, Author, Visual Artist

Sara Baume Irish AuthorSara Baume, born in 1984, was raised and now lives in County Cork, after having studied Fine Art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art, and Design and Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin.

Her fiction and criticism have been published in anthologies, newspapers and journals such as Irish Times, the Guardian, the Stinging Fly and Granta.

She has published two critically acclaimed novels, spill simmer falter wither (2015) winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and A Line Made by Walking (2017) shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and a work of creative nonfiction Handiwork (2020).

“Baume’s protagonists in both her novels and short stories are solitary people, misfits of our society, mostly representatives of those human beings who find it difficult to adapt themselves to contemporary standards and conventions and who look for different ways of living or rather try to establish alternative communities of life.”

Pre-Order Seven Steeples

If you are interested in the forthcoming novel, it’s available to pre-order as a Limited Edition here

It is a novel about a couple that pushes against traditional expectations, moving with their dogs to the Irish countryside where they embed themselves in nature and make attempts to disappear from society.

Seven Steeples Sara Baume

The Son of the House by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Described as a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood and set in Nigeria, I requested this novel via NetGalley earlier this year immediately attracted by the premise and the setting.

Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, Canada’s Literary Award

Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist Nigerian literary fictionCoincidentally, the day I started reading it, I became aware it was one of the five shortlisted novels for the Canadian literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize on the same day the winner was to be announced.

It didn’t win – that award went to journalist/novelist Omar El Akkad for What Strange Paradise, a novel that examines the current refugee crisis and the lengths to which people will go to find home, safety and belonging – however The Son of the House is already an award winning novel and one that addresses important contemporary issues and one I highly recommend reading.

Review

I really enjoyed The Son of the House right from the opening pages; the intrigue set up by the fact that two women have just been kidnapped from within their car on a residential street, we know nothing about who they are or why this has happened. However, it is not the drama that takes centre stage, it is the lives of the characters, who we will come to know.

These two do know this kind of thing can happen and the woman who drove castigates herself for having taken that particular road.

We did not entertain the idea that the police might save us, guns blazing, as happened in the movies. The police themselves, people said, would sometimes tell the family of kidnapped persons to go pay the ransom so that harm would not come to their loved one. They had neither the resources nor the serious desire to pursue kidnappers. There was even speculation that the police might be complicit in some kidnappings. So our only hope, like many kidnapping victims in this country, was that our people would come up with the money.

Since they are going to be spending time together, they decide to share their stories. And thus the reader must wait while getting to know these two women and the circumstances that lead to this intersection of their lives.

Their lives are very different, and both equally fascinating and riveting to read about.

Nwabulu, Orphan, Housemaid, Mother

gender women expectations motherhood The Son of the House

Photo by Breston Kenya on Pexels.com

Nwabulu, lost her mother when she was born and her father remarried soon after.

From that day, the peace and joy of our home moved somewhere else; peace and joy could not stay in the same room as Mama Nkemdilim’s jealousy.

Her stepmother resents her and at the first offer, sends her away to serve for a family. Innocent, yet she seems to go from one terrible situation to another, no adult looking out for her, she is vulnerable to the outside world, even within the supposed confines of an employer’s home.

I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna. My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten.

She finds a situation finally that suits her, only to be disgraced and sent back again to the village. The situation that occurs is the first instance we become aware of the presence and significance of ‘the son of the house’.

I was a housemaid. He was the son of the house. He would not really know what it was like to work in a place and live and sleep there but still know that it was not home. He would not know and I could not put it into words.

Back in the village, an older woman who has lost her son, appears to offer solace to Nwabulu, but her life too revolves around this traditional symbol, and the lengths to which she will go to fulfill it are devastating.

Although this is a story of women, it is also about the intersection of women and the importance, presence and success of this symbol, ‘the son of the house’ to their society and how it impacts their lives as girls, sisters, young women, and as mothers.

Julie, Sister, Unmarried daughter, Second wife

parental authority expectations gender The Son of the House

Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

The second woman Julie is single and contentedly having an affair with a married man. She has one brother and he is supposed to be the example and support of his family, according to how their father has raised them.

“By joining the church and getting an education,” he continued, “I brought light to my family. It is the duty of each new person in the line to bring something good to the family, to keep the family going.”

However, due to her brother’s problems, her father makes this her responsibility, on his death bed, that she will work to ensure the success of her brother in meeting his familial duties – here again we realise that these stories, these women’s lives revolve in some way around maintaining the tradition, the status of the patriarchy, in the elevation of and presence of ‘the son of the house’.

I would make a better son of the house, I sometimes thought. But what fell to me was not carrying on the family name but ensuring that the one who was to do so succeeded.

Unexpected Friendships, Synchronicity’s

Cheluchi OnyeMelukwe Onubia Europa Editions UKAs their stories unfold, we also discover the importance of these women’s friendships, both of them have been helped by their best female friend at a turning point in their lives and the mystery gradually unfolds as to what has brought these unexpected allies together.

It’s a riveting read and an insight into Nigerian culture and classism, into how two very different women navigate a traditional patriarchal society and not only survive, but the lengths to which they will go to both meet those cultural/societal expectations, to develop resilience, how they find ways to rise beyond it.

I loved the book and thought the characters were realistic and intriguing and the sense of place evocative.

Here’s the fabulous UK cover version, it was published in the UK by my favourite publisher, Europa Editions in May 2021. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

Review, Brittle Paper: Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s The Son of the House reviewed by Ikhide Ikheloa

Interview, Olongo Africa: I am a child of the 80’s an interview with Uchechukwu Umezurike

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Author

The Son of the House Nigerian LiteratureCheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia is a Nigerian-Canadian lawyer, academic and writer.

She holds a doctorate in law from Dalhousie University and works in the areas of health, gender, and violence against women and children.

Cheluchi divides her time between Lagos and Halifax.

The Son of the House was shortlisted for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021, winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021, and winner of the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair 2019.

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Literary fiction that manages to be utterly compelling, thought provoking, intense and revelatory. Set in 1970’s East London. It was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2011 and nominated for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2013.

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats during October with Didi’s Read Soul Lit ReadAlong group on Goodreads.

A Visitation

Booker longlisted Black british literary fictionIt is 14 years since Jinx’s mother died and the knock on her door by a friend of her mother’s she hasn’t seen since then, initiates this weekend like no other, which will bring back all the emotion, rage, resentment, passion and sorrow that has been pushed down so deep for years.

It is an intense and provocative beginning that reveals just enough to pique interest and make the reader begin to ask questions, that we hope the story will reveal. Who was responsible for what happened back then and what part did each of them play?

When Lemon arrives at her door, his first words are “he’s out”.

There were changes around his face; the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were wider fanned, the bags beneath them full and heavy, and his old skin bore new lines. His eyes were red-rimmed, the whites yellowed, the expression intense as he looked at me, already asking questions, talking of things that should be whispered even when alone, and it was me that looked away, looked down, wondering if my own eyes were as eloquent as his, afraid that they might be speaking volumes, scared of the things they might have already said.

Jinx’s five year old son Ben arrives for the weekend, a shared custody arrangement; it goes badly, she is reactive, he is upset.

Effect of Unconscious Trauma

There is a sense of suppressed trauma that impacts her ability to mother. The son tries to reach out to her and is unable to connect. Her perceptions and behaviour are inexplicable. When she views her son interacting with Lemon, she can’t grasp the ease they demonstrate.

I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took from his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we learn about the lives of Jinx and her mother, widowed at a young age having married a much older man.

The one thing my mother always said about Mr Jackson was that he was a decent man, that he took proper care of things, including this mortgage-free house that he left to her, which she then left to me when I was sixteen and she was dead. Decent enough to ask no more of her than that she occupy it and dedicate her life to raising me, forsaking all other men till I had grown up. ‘Grown up’ she interpreted to mean when I was sixteen. It was ironic that I actually had grown up then. Sixteen and overnight my childhood was over.

Will We Ever Understand Domestic Violence?

rain weather London Black British literary fiction

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

We learn about the beginning of her mum’s relationship with Berris. Of his moving in and taking over, Jinx’s growing resentment and jealousy. His volatile nature and her mother’s acceptance of it, of those coats he gives her as apologies.

There are many different kinds of rain, and England is famous for all of them. There are showers that start with a light drizzle, then build up to a steady pour. Then there’s rain that begins drip, drip, gets heavy, then stops then starts and stops and starts again. Then there’s sudden rain that falls quickly when it’s sunny, like its only ambition is to make a rainbow and once it’s done that, it stops. If I had to describe Berris as rain, he was none of those, and the words ‘You won’t even know he’s here’ turned out to be the understatement of the year.

Friendship

A Cupboard Full of Coats Yvvette Edwards

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

When the narrative moves back to her sixteenth year, Jinx is her final year at school, sitting O levels. We meet her best friend Sam and observe that she too is going through a transition, two girls that used to do everything together, begin to diverge.

Their relationship begins to change when after a few days of absence the teacher no longer calls Sam’s name in roll call.

It’s like the beginning of the application of a moral code, something stronger than friendship, when womanhood approaches and white lies creep in between friends, as they navigate the shifting status on that precipice between girl and woman, when boys and men begin to enter their lives.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured in alternate chapters of the past and the present, so as the weekend progresses, with Lemon’s visit, there is a gradual thawing out and opening up, on both their parts, as Jinx listens and begins to open up, remembering, recalling, each filling in the gaps of the other’s perception of what happened around the time of her mother’s death.

The past concentrates on those month’s leading up to her mother’s death, building suspense as the story closes in on that final day, that until now, no one really had the complete picture of what occurred.

Reading it, we ask ourselves, can healing take place over a weekend? What will Lemon’s visit reveal? What is Jinx hiding?

A Cupboard Full of Coats explores relationships, jealousy, independence, co-dependence and the transitions that happen as a girl becomes a woman, a mother a lover and the vulnerability of women.

The atmosphere she creates, the intensity, the adept characterisation, the confessions and revelations make for a compelling read. Though I read it over a week when I was busy, each time I picked it up, it gripped me and I highlighted thought provoking passages all the way through. The conversation the group had about the book was dynamic, there was a lot of outrage expressed against the characters, the live discussion was a rewarding way to end the book.

Highly Recommended. I’ll definitely be reading her next novel and hope to see more from this talented British author.

Yvvette Edwards, Author

Black British literary fictionYvvette Edwards is a British East Londoner of Montserratian origin and author of two novels, A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa, and broadcast on radio.

Her work has been nominated for a number of literary awards including the Booker Prize. She is particularly interested in writing that challenges the single narrative, giving voice to characters who are absent or under-represented in contemporary fiction.

She was a judge for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour and the George Floyd Short Story Competition. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Further Information

OneWorld Publications: Yvvette Edwards discusses A Cupboard Full of Coats

The Independent: A Matter of Black and White

Booker Prize Winner 2021

Today the Booker Prize winner for 2021 was announced from the shortlist of these six novels below:

Booker Prize Fiction Shortlist 2021

You can see all the titles and read mini descriptions of all the 13 novels that were longlisted here:

Having reread the entire shortlist three times the judges have decided:

The Winner

The Promise by South African writer Damon Galgut

The Promise Damon Galgut

Description

The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for, not  least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home.

Judges Comment

In The Promise, Damon Galgut makes a strong, unambiguous commentary on the history of South Africa and of humanity itself that can best be summed up in the question: does true justice exist in this world? The novel’s way of tackling this question is what makes it an accomplishment and truly deserving of its place.

Another author I haven’t read, I might have to check it out! Have you read this or anything by Damon Galgut?