The Last Resort by Jan Carson

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

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

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

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

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

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

the last resort ballycastle jan carson ireland

Photo Y. ShuraevPexels.com

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

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

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

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

Seacliff Northern Ireland The Last Resort

Photo by Tatiana on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

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

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

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

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

Her third novel The Raptures was released in Jan 2022.

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.

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.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ, tr. Modupé Bodé-Thomas

An excellent Sunday afternoon read and pertinent to much that is being written and read in the media under the banner of the silencing of women today.

This short, articulate novella is a conversation, in the form of a lengthy letter from a widow to her best friend, whom she hasn’t seen for some years, but who is arriving tomorrow. It is set in Senegal, was originally written and published in French in 1980 and in English in 1981, the year in which the author died tragically of a long illness.

Our recent widow is reflecting on the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, how she is unable to detach from memories of better times in the past, during those 25 years where she was happily married and the only wife of her husband, thoughts interrupted by the more bitter, heart-breaking recent years where she was abandoned by him for the best friend of her daughter, a young woman, who traded the magic of youth for the allure of shiny things (with the exception of his silver-grey streaks, which he in turn trades in for the black dye of those in denial of the ageing process).

With his death, she must sit beside this young wife, have her inside her home for the funeral, in accordance with tradition. She is irritated by this necessity.

Was it madness, weakness, irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.

By turn she expresses shock, outrage, anger, resentment, pity until her thoughts turn with compassion towards those she must continue to aid, her children; to those who have supported her, her friends; including this endearing one about to arrive; she thinks too of the burden of responsibility of all women.

And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that I gave him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disavowal.
And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!

It is a lament, a paradox of feelings, a resentment of tradition, a wonder at those like her more liberated and courageous friend, who in protest at her own unfair treatment (a disapproving mother-in-law interferes – reminding me of Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay with Me), took the road less travelled, taking her four sons, arming herself with renewed higher education and an enviable career abroad.

It is a testament to the plight of women everywhere, who live in sufferance to the old ways of patriarchy, whose articulate social conscience has little outlet except through their children, whose ability to contribute so much more is worn down by the age-old roles they  continue to play, which render other qualities less effective when under utilised.

I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of the women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities.
My heart rejoices every time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.

Ultimately, she posits, it is only love that can heal, that can engender peace and harmony and the success of family is born of the couple’s harmony, as the nation depends inevitably on the family.

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.

Mariama Bâ (April 17, 1929 – August 17, 1981) was a Senegalese author and feminist, who wrote in French. Born in Dakar to an educated and well-off family, her father was Minister of Health, her grandfather a translator in the occupying French regime. After the premature death of her mother, she was largely raised in the traditional manner by her maternal grandparents.

She was a novelist, teacher and feminist, active from 1979 to 1981 in Senegal, West Africa. Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parents’ life, her schooling and subsequent experiences as a wife, mother and friend.

Her contribution is considered important in modern African studies as she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. She believed in her mission to expose and critique the rationalisations employed to justify established power structures. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for  society.

It’s an excellent short read and an excellent account from the inside of a polygamous society, highlighting the important role women already have and the greater one they could embrace if men and women were to give greater respect to the couple, the family, or at least to exit it with greater respect than this model implies.

 

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Spain) tr. Lisa Dillman

Such Small Hands is an incredible and unique novella, quite unlike anything I have read, it’s written almost from another dimension. The author somehow enters into a childlike perspective and witnesses the aftermath of a car accident in which the child Marina’s parents don’t survive.

“My father died instantly, and then my mother died in the hospital.”

An omniscient narrator theorizes on her relationship to sounds and words, as she repeats certain phrases and sees visions of the accident recurring.

As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.

Marina sees a psychologist after recovering from her own injuries and is placed in an orphanage.

The narrative alternates between Marina’s perspective and the collective “we” of all the other girls. Marina is already different, in that up until she entered the orphanage she lived in her own family with her parents, unlike many of the other children.

They love her, they are intrigued by her, but resent the attention she receives.

“This is the moment when Marina realises something: I’m different. And as always, the realisation itself outshines the symbolic event that lead to it, the realisation emerges from the sludge of reality performed, , round and irrefutable, , something that had always been there: I’m different.”

Marina introduces them to a game, which splits their daytime from their nighttime selves. Without another outlet for their emotions, they resort to certain behaviours, which begin like a game, but without an authority to draw the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

“The doll opened one eye, her right one, slowly, surprised. Her hands were still, resting on her knees, waiting for what she did not know. We didn’t know either. It was just the momentum of the circle, the knowledge that something was about to spring like a coil, the conviction that the circle would spin faster and faster and faster until it was so fast that it would vanish into the air, and we’d vanish with it, everything would vanish.”

Inspired by a disturbing event, this enters the realm of post trauma in an innocent and bizarre way, taking the reader back to a kind of twilight zone of an insecure childhood, where the nightmare becomes real and the line between reality and dreams is blurred.

Fascinating.

Andrés Barba is the author of twelve books and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish Novelists.

He was a teacher at a university in Madrid and now gives writing workshops. His writing has been translated into ten languages.

Further Reading

Guardian Review – An unsettling tale set in an orphanage will trouble readers long after they have put the novella aside by Sarah Perry

Paris Review – All Writers Have a Corpse in Their Closet: An Interview with Andrés Barba by Jonathan Lee

Masks by Fumiko Enchi tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter #WITMonth

MasksA mysterious novella that begins in a quiet humble way as we meet the young widow Yasuko whose husband, the only son of Meiko Togano, we learn died tragically in an avalanche.

Yasuko has stayed close to her mother-in-law who in the early chapters seems like a peripheral character, however as the story ventures further, it is suspected that she may be manipulating events and that this is not the first time in her life she has done so.

“A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge – an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation”

Yasuko is ready to move on with her life and the two men who are in love with her become part of a triangle of deception, where the motives take some time to become clear.

Mieko is a poet and an essay she wrote called ‘The Shrine in the Fields‘, resurfaces, intriguing the two men. The shrine is a reference to a location in the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji that is mentioned in connection with tone of the characters in that novel the Rokujo lady.

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secret.”

Tale of GenjiIt is worth knowing a little about the plot of The Tale of Genji and the ‘Masks of Noh’ from the dramatic plays, as we realise there are likely to be references and connections to what is unfolding here. And not surprising given Fumiko Enchi translated this 1,000+ page novel into modern Japanese.

It may be that Masks, is an allegory to one or more chapters of The Tale of Genji, and in particular in relation to the story of the Rokujo lady, something that made me remember reading Sjon’s The Whispering Muse which did a similar thing with the Greek poet, Apollonius of Rhodes, and his epic poem The Argonautica.

Masks is an enchanting read, that begins as a straightforward narrative and becomes an intriguing multi-layered tapestry of long held deceptions and narcissistic conspiracies that will haunt the lives of these characters.

An intriguing, thought-provoking read, that expands our horizons, introducing us as it does, to classic works and theatre from the long Japanese literary culture.

Fumiko EnchiFumiko Enchi was a Tokyo born novelist and playright, the daughter of a distinguished philologist and linguist. Poorly as a child, she was home-schooled in English, French and Chinese literature by private tutors.

Her paternal grandmother introduced her to the Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji, as well as gesaku novels,  kabuki and bunraku theatre. Her  adolescent reading included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.

Much of her work explores female psychology and sexuality, while three of her works have been influenced by The Tales of Genji, – Masks, The Waiting Years and The Tale of An Enchantress.

Buy a Copy of Masks via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

The Gift of StonesFrom whispering muse to the gift of stones, this was the second book I read in 2016, one of Jim Crace’s earlier philosophical works, telling the tale of a village of stone workers, who live a simple life working stone into weapons, which are then traded with passers-by for food and other essentials, which they are not able to provide for themselves, in the arid landscape within which they reside. It is a livelihood they think little about, it is all they know.

A boy’s destiny is changed after he is injured in the arm by an arrow. The arrow is a symbol of change and both opens and closes this short, though provoking novella.

The injury becomes a turning point for a boy, his arm partially amputated, making him unable to follow in the village tradition, he must find another way of contributing to his community. His predicament is a foretelling of what is to come, but first he alone must learn to adapt.

He ventures outside, further from the village than anyone has ever been, near the sea and the heath, bringing them tales of beyond, discovering the allure and power of imagination. Experiencing things and feelings he has never encountered.

Already an orphan living with his uncle in a stone age village of people who work with flint, his injury turns him into a storyteller, inspired by his walks along the coastline towards the heath where he meets a woman with her baby living alone in a hut. He discovers how to captivate and amuse an audience, to take their minds off their day-to-day torments.

‘The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.’

He brings the woman back to the village, however she isn’t welcomed by the villagers, set in their ways. She too symbolises the lessons they must learn, though they will realise this much too late. When he tells the villagers her history, a truth, they become bored and turn away.

‘Quite soon they found it far too dark and cold to listen to my father any lore. They peeled away before the tale was done, unmoved by my father’s portrait of the widow and her child on the heath, her struggles not to die, her hardships, grief and hunger, the slaughter of the geese, the crushing of her hut. Quite soon there were no cousins left to hear my father’s tale. His audience – excluding bats and mother – had crept away, unamused and angered by the venom in his voice.

My father stood alone and startled – for now he understood the power of the truth.’

flint arrow head

It is a philosophical tale of unrequited love, abandonment, survival and the heralders of change, how communities react to the necessity to adjust, and to those who are different, outsiders.

It touches on the role of imagination and storytelling, not just as entertainment and a craft, but as those who foresee change, create invention, imagine other ways of life.

Poignant and intriguing, given the era within which it is set and a kind of tribute to the greater importance of storytelling within society.

 

Unsettled: A Search for Love and Meaning by Neelima Vinod

Neelima Vinod is a poet whose work I have enjoyed reading online at Neel The Muse for a while, so I was intrigued to read her novella when learning that she had been published, wondering how a poet might fill the page when the words and sentences were required to touch both margins of the page continuously. Curious too, as it delves into the supernatural within the context of the story telling heritage of southern India, not quite the same as that contemporary foray into what is we refer to as the paranormal.

UnsettledBeing a novella, it is a relatively quick read and starts out as a love story, or its anti-thesis as it is clear that the relationship between the couple is being threatened by perceived jealousy. To heal their relationship Divya and Raghav seek out the services of Dr Ray, a yogi.

The Doctor sends them on a quest, to retrieve the ancient Scrolls of Love from an old abandoned house about which many stories have been told and which no one wishes to enter, in fear of what it is said to be possessed by. The Doctor’s motives do not appear to be entirely altruistic, a twist in the story that was almost too subtle and had me rereading passages to observe him more closely than I did the first time through.

house-next-door“It is in the one hundred-roomed mansion at Cherakad that the Scrolls of Love were buried during the terrible floods. It nearly wiped the village off the map centuries ago. No one has confirmed it though.

Archaeologists I have talked to have told me that the house lies abandoned. Any one in possession of the Scrolls would understand love’s true secret-folklore at its best.”

Parallel to the contemporary love story, we read a tale of the Royal Court poet Shankara, banished from the kingdom of Cherakad five centuries ago after falling out of favour with one of the King’s concubines Meenakshi. Shankara roams the land in confusion and without purpose until he encounters a woman in white, Thathri, the same woman Divya has been dreaming of, whose story she had been told by her Grandmother when she was a child.

As the book progresses, connections between the tales arise as the mystery unravels, the past and the present become entwined as the couple attempt to conquer their quest and resurrect their struggling relationship.

storytellerWell written, it’s an enjoyable read and one that requires careful attention in order to make the connections clear. I am sure there are things I was not aware of, I even wondered if Shankara was based on a real poet and whether this fable  had connection to stories already told and passed down through families and villages. Sadly, it is a dying art, the gift of oral story telling, threatened more than ever by the technology of today’s modern world.

Its title might suggest romance, but the dark and foreboding cover and spectre like presence within suggest it may be more of an alternative ghost story. Unsettling indeed.

Thank you Neelima for sending me a copy of your e-book.

If you are interested in reading it, you can find a copy at the Indireads Book Store.

La petite fille de Monsieur Linh by Philippe Claudel tr. Euan Cameron

This month our bookclub chose a slim novella by the French author Philippe Claudel to read, La petite fille de Monsieur Linh; an interesting and somewhat ambiguous title because it can be interpreted in two different ways, already a dilemma for the translator no doubt, because petite fille is the expression used for grand-daughter, but it can also be read as petite ‘little’ and fille ‘girl’.

Something I have often wondered – why is it that there is only one word fille that means both girl and daughter, whereas there are two words for the male equivalent fils meaning son and garçon meaning boy?  The same thing happens with woman and wife, the French word is femme, whereas man is homme and husband is mari.

So did the English translation go with grand-daughter or little girl you might ask? Actually neither, the English title as shown is Monsieur Linh and His Child.  I’m not sure why they stay with Monsieur rather than Mr, I was not under the impression that he spoke in French.  It becomes clear how much of a task translating a novel must be, so many decisions to make or discard with the title alone, already certain ambiguities are lost while other insinuations are made.

Our English speaking bookclub has an international membership, so while we all read the book in French, the discussion is in English. For those of us reading French as a second language, the experience was quite different from reading a book in English.

We all went through a similar experience, starting out with a dictionary close at hand and looking words up, until we got fed up with that and decided to continue reading without stopping, some of us underlining words to come back to.

As you can see, I had my pencil ready and I also downloaded the English version to my kindle and started reading concurrent chapters, only to discover I really was just repeating myself and it wasn’t necessary to do that. But enough of the process, what a stunning novella!

Monsieur Linh has no choice but to flee his country of birth due to tragedy and destruction around him, war or some kind of tyrannical regime have made it impossible for him to stay, and so he takes a boat with his grand-daughter Sang diu, arriving as a refugee in a country across the water somewhere.

In the Shadow of the BanyanThe author does not say where he came from or where he arrives at, making this part of the reading experience, in fact we all had various impressions of where the story may have taken place, my own impression very much influenced by my recent reading of Vaddey Ratner’s novel In the Shadow of the Banyan and my own travels in that part of the world.

Monsieur Linh doesn’t leave the refugee dormitory at first, but when he does he befriends Monsieur Bark and so begins a regular coming together, a special friendship despite the incomprehension of each other’s language. In a sense we are as uninformed as Monsieur Linh, we follow him into the unknown, share his anxieties and fears for Sang diu and feel the deep and mutual appreciation of the gestures of new-found friendship.

Lorsque Monsieur Bark parle, Monsieur Linh l’écoute très  attentivement et le regarde, comme s’il comprenait tout et ne voulait rien perdre du sens des mots. Ce que sent le vieil homme, c’est que le ton de la voix de Monsieur Bark indique la tristesse, une mélancolie profonde, une sorte de blessure que la voix souligne, qu’elle accompagne au-delà des mots et du langage, quelque chose qui la traverse comme la sève traverse l’arbre sans qu’on la voie.

When  Monsieur Bark speaks, Monsieur Linh listens to him very attentively and looks at him, as if he understood everything and did not want to lose any of the meaning of the words.  What the old man senses is that the tone of Monsieur Bark’s voice denotes sadness, a deep melancholy, a sort of wound the voice accentuates, which accompanies it beyond words and language, something that infuses it just as the sap infuses a tree without one seeing it.

When I bought this book, another reader cautioned me against reading any reviews because there is a twist at the end of the book, so I did as mentioned and kept the reading experience pure. There is so much more I could share about how we invest ourselves in characters as readers, wishing things to happen and just as in life, ignoring the niggling instinct.

Irène Némirovsky’s Ida & La comédie bourgeoise

It is a beautiful story and I urge you to read it in English or in French, it is a testimony to kindness, tolerance, suffering and the small but heartfelt joys that friendship brings. Not just a wonderful story, but it has inspired me to be brave and try another short book in French. So I have my pencil ready loving that the novella form is so popular and inexpensive in France, so here is my next foray, – no rush mind you.

So do you read in a second language or like to read foreign fiction?

The Housekeeper + The Professor

Having recently discovered and read Yoko Ogawa’s
‘The Diving Pool’, I was further intrigued when I saw this novella displayed in my local bookshop and couldn’t resist another of her works with its beautiful cover and the promise of an alluring story about a woman who visits an eccentric mathematics professor each day to clean his home and cook his meals.

Reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ is a little like a meditation in mindfulness; although we might escape into the book, we are held in its present, for each day is a repeat of the previous and follows a pattern, such as we might too if our memory were constantly erased after eighty minutes, the habits we would continually follow, because we have been reduced to the very core of our nature, without the accumulation of memory from yesterday, last week or last year.

The Professor is a mathematics genius, whose memory ceased functioning after an accident some years before, so while he retains his mathematical genius and his long term memory before the accident, he has lost his short term memory.  It lasts only eighty minutes and so he has devised crude methods to remember things, such as pinning small pieces of paper to his suit to remind him of important facts, otherwise he starts every day anew.

The housekeeper arrives each morning and introduces herself as if they have never met. Slowly, she and her ten year old son, whom the Professor refers to as Root – a reference to the square root sign and his hair, are drawn into the Professor’s reduced world where numbers reign supreme and the two visitors begin to understand the magic and meaning behind what they had always thought of as ordinary numbers.

Whether you hated mathematics at school or loved it like I did, you will find yourself attracted to the arithmetic secrets the Professor unveils, which stir more than a mild curiosity in the significance of certain numbers and the challenge of elegant equations, as both the housekeeper and her son discover to their own delight.

Eternal truths are ultimately invisible , and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions.  Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.

In essence, it is a meditation on the simplicity of life and an introduction to the complexity and significance of numbers; it is about letting go and accepting things the way they are and deriving small pleasures from the mundane.

Yoko Ogawa’s writing and storytelling flows like a sparkling river, it draws you in and carries you along; there are few surprises just gradual awakenings. There is a vulnerability to each of the main characters that we pick up on, which forewarns us, characters we become sympathetic to, whom I was sad to leave behind but will be revisiting again for sure.