Loop by Brenda Lozano tr. Annie McDermott

wp-1629982535768..jpgI picked up Loop for WIT (Women in Translation) month and I loved it. I had few expectations going into reading it and was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed its unique, meandering, playful style.

It was also the first work of fiction I have read, after a nine week pause, while I have been working on my own writing project, so its style of short well spaced paragraphs, really suited me. I highlighted hundreds of passages, an indicative sign.

Change. Unlearning yourself is more important than knowing yourself.

It was helpful to listen to the recent Charco Press interview linked below to understand that it is a kind of anti-hero story, inspired by her thinking about The Odyssey’s Penelope while her lover Odysseus is off on his hero’s quest – of the inner journey of the one who waits, the way that quiet contemplation and observation also reveal understanding and epiphanies.

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.

Penelope and OdysseusThe narrator is waiting for the return of her boyfriend, who has travelled to Spain after the death of his mother.

His absence coincides with her recovery from an accident, so she has a double experience of waiting, a greater opportunity to observe the familiar and unfamiliar around her, to see patterns, imagine connections, dream and catastrophise.

Childhood is so uncertain, so distant. It’s almost like childhood is the origin of fiction: describing any past event over and over to see how far away you are getting from reality.

And then there is her quiet obsession with notebooks, with the ideal notebook, another subject that evolves in her pursuit of it. It’s thought provoking, funny, full of lots of literary and musical references, which I enjoyed listening to while reading and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. And a nod to Proust. The dude.

I was left with a scar. I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words. Since not all blows or falls leave marks, the words are there, ready to be put together in different ways, anywhere, anytime, in response to any fall, however serious or slight.

Random observations over time create patterns and themes, eliciting minor epiphanies.

Wild-Is-The-WindA celebration of the yin aspect of life, the jewel within. And that jewel of a song, sung by both David Bowie and Nina Simone, Wild is the Wind.

…the present is also, as its name suggests, a gift. It doesn’t suggest longing or loss. It’s just a present, a gift, a time with no strings attached which is totally ours, to use however we want, however we please. There are days when I find the future overwhelming, with all the bright lights and commotion.

I highly recommend it if you enjoy plotless narratives that make you think and see meaning in the ordinary. And relate to the little things.

Dwarf things. Small things. Little things in relation to the norm. Insignificant things. Things with different dimensions. Curiously, the stories I like the most are made up of trivialities. Details. Trifles. These days, people look to what’s big. The big picture, big sales figures, success. Bright lights, interviews, breaking news. Whatever’s famous. Importance judged by fame. Maybe small things are subversive. Living on a modest scale compared to the norm. Maybe the dwarf is the hero of our time.

Brenda Lozano Author LoopBrenda Lozano is a novelist, essayist and editor. She was born in Mexico in 1981.

Her novels include Todo nada (2009), Cuaderno ideal (2014) published in English as Loop and the storybook Cómo piensan las piedras (2017). Her most recent novel is Brujas (2020).

Brenda Lozano was recognized by Conaculta, Hay Festival and the British Council as one of the most important writers under 40 years of age in Mexico and named as one of the Bogotá 39, a selection of the best young writers in Latin America.  She also writes for the newspaper El País.

Further Information

On Charco Press’s Instagram IGTV page there is a video interview with Brenda Lozano for WIT Month where she speaks about the process of translation as a part of the art of writing, about her influences as she wrote Loop and about how she has taken the story of Penelope and Odysseus as inspiration.

Don’t be alarmed if this isn’t going anywhere. Don’t expect theories, reliable facts or conclusions. Don’t take any of this too seriously. That’s what universities are for, and theses, and academic studies. Personally, I like cafés, bars and living rooms. Not to mention comfortable cushions. So nice and cosy.

Love Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet tr. Rose Myriam-Réjouis, Val Vinokur

A Haitian Trilogy – Introduction by Edwidge Danticat

Love Anger Madness Marie Vieux ChauvetOriginally published in French as Amour, colère et folie, this trilogy of novellas was originally suppressed upon its initial publication in 1968. Seen as a scathing response to the struggles of race, class and sex that had occurred in Haiti, this major work became an underground classic, would send its author into exile and would finally be released in an authorised edition in France in 2005 (this English version in 2009).

Considered by Edwidge Danticat as the cornerstone of Haitian literature, she opens her introduction telling us that “Fewer than a handful of Haitian writers have, both while alive and dead, inspired as much adulation, analysis, and discussion as Marie Vieux-Chauvet.”

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Marie Vieux-Chauvet was a member of the “occupation generation”, that is, born a year after the United States invaded Haiti, an occupation that would last 19 years. She would use the turmoil of that rebellion as the back-story for Love, the first novella of the trilogy.

“We have been practicing at cutting each other’s throats since Independence,” she writes of the country we Haitians like to remind the world was the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, home to the only slave revolt that succeeded in producing a nation. What we would rather not say, and what Claire Clamont and Marie Vieux-Chauvet are brave enough to say, is that this same country has continued to fail at reaching its full potential, in part because of foreign interference and domination, but also because of internal strife and power struggles.

In three distinct novellas it unflinchingly manages to condemn totalitarianism and tyranny, with little care of the consequences, an act of courageousness or recklessness, but one that would make a significant and permanent mark in the chronicles of Haitian literature.

Love

The narrator of Love, Claire Clamont, is the eldest of three daughters, of a landowning upper-class family. She is the son her father never had and he wishes her to runs things as he would have them done. However, he hasn’t reckoned on her stubbornness and refusal to affiliate with some of the old ways he indulges, having raised her to think of them as superstitious. As a result she is neither feared nor respected by the workers, whom he had sold parcels of land to fund his political campaigns, a futile effort that has left the family near penniless.

The three sisters of this aristocratic family live together, all coveting the same man, Felicia’s husband. Annette succeeds in seducing him, Claire silently, voyeuristically encouraging her.

Meanwhile, a man sent to reform Haiti is known to use violent, torturous means to get his message across, preying on the innocent.

The love this elder daughter practices is tinged with jealousy, revenge and resentment, laying blame at the feet of an ancestor with dark skin. She resents this ancestor who made her so, resents her father for trying to turn her into the son he never had, resents one sister for marrying a man she loves and the other for having seduced him.

Anger

Anger centres around a family and the day a group of black uniformed paramilitary seize their land, putting stakes in the ground, the grandfather and the young disabled grandson are indignant, the son and his wife wary and afraid, their older daughter Rose is practical, the young adult son Paul going crazy, desires revenge.

Men arrive and plant stakes in the ground of land belonging to a family, they wear black uniforms and invoke fear. Each of the family inside react. Then the concrete arrives. They’re seizing the land and building a wall.

The family is observed, tries to address the injustice, is compromised.

The mother got up slowly, put down her needlework, walked over to the old man and spoke into his ear.

“Look at him, Grandfather,” she whispered, “just look at him.”

The child was clenching his fists and grinding his teeth.

“Who will flog those who have taken our land?” he said without paying any attention to the mother. “Is there no longer a steward who can do it?”

“Alas, no!” the grandfather answered.

“Why not?”

“Because there are ups and downs in the life of a people. As the arrow rises, it gives birth to heroes; when it falls, only cowards come into the world. No steward would agree to stand up to those who have taken our land.”

He told himself that his crippled and sickly grandson was the faint beginning of the next era of heroes and that the arrow had begun its slow ascent only eight years ago. Hundreds more must have come into the world the same time he did, he thought, and with feet and legs as well as a brave soul. A day will come when they will grow up and the birds of prey will have to account for their deeds to every last one of them.

Madness

Madness is narrated by René, a lower class mulatto poet hiding inside his shack, paranoid about what’s going on outside his door and inside his mind, finding solace in a bottle, in rituals to do with voodoo beliefs that most of his life he has rejected and the poet friends he fearfully opens his door to, to offer them refuge. Unclear, what is real and what is the projection of a man’s fearful mind, we read on, aware that under oppression anything is possible.

A thought provoking read that invites the reader to understand more about the historical and present situation in Haiti.

Marie Vieux ChauvetMarie Vieux-Chauvet was a Haitian novelist, poet and playwright, the author of five novels including Dance on the Volcano, Fonds des Negres, Fille d’Haiti and Les Rapaces.

Her works focus on class, color, race, gender, family structure and the upheaval of Haitian political, economic and social society during the United States occupation of Haiti and the dictatorship of François Duvalier. She died in New York in 1973.

Further Reading

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Best Reads of 2020

In 2020 I read more books than usual, as a result of the diminished social and leisure life we’ve all had to rein in. That extra home time I gifted to my reading and writing activities and was aptly rewarded.

Books That Soothe the Soul

It was a slow start as the year began, still in the terrible lull that followed the death of my teenage daughter in August 2019. I couldn’t read and when I tried it wasn’t easy to find the right match. The few books that soothed me were more of a spiritual nature, Julie Ryan’s Angelic Attendants Felicity Warner’s Sacred Oils, and The Grief Recovery Handbook; though I wasn’t able to express here how they sustained me, they just did.

Confinement in France

Then in March we were ordered to stay home. In France, it is known as le confinement. For two months I wasn’t able to work and we were only allowed to leave home for an hour a day for exercise within a 1 kilometre radius of home and to carry a printed attestation each time we left home. Ironically, while this was the beginning of a difficult period for many, it was the beginning of a return to a new reality and routine for me. The daily walk, the immense gratitude, the arrival of spring, noticed and appreciated in a new way. I was finding a way back to balance, re-centering.

I wrote a series of blog posts entitled Reading Lists for Total Confinement, which included my:

Alberto Villoldo How Shamans Dream the World into BeingTop Five Spiritual Well Being Reads, Top Five Nature Inspired Reads, Top Five Uplifting Reads,

Top Five Translated FictionTop Five Memoirs and the Top Five books I was intending to read next.

It was a tipping point and re-entry back into reading, and one title that I slow-read and drip-fed myself, no more than a chapter a day, during those two months, that was like an uplifting, therapeutic intervention was Cuban-American Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

He reminds us that we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future. Never was there a better time to refresh this knowledge and to recall the benefit of expressing one’s creativity.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Travelling the World From Home

And so my reading mojo returned and from the comfort of home, I rested in the present, resisted the pull of other media and travelled the world through literature, reading a little over a book a week, by authors from 34 countries, a third of them in translation.

Continuing to favour the imagination in storytelling, 70% of the books I read were fiction, however I read more non-fiction this year than ever and some of my favourite reads came from this genre.

Here are my Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads, as well as my annual ‘One Outstanding Read of the Year’.

Outstanding Read of the Year

Best Non Fiction Read of 2020A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Ireland) – I read so many deserving, excellent works of fiction that were also outstanding, so I revisited this book to remind me why it deserves to be elevated above the rest.

It may be due to my own journey, perhaps there is something about this book that validates my desire to write something fragmented and unconventional, something that isn’t easily categorised.

This work of creative nonfiction is as personal as it is universal, it uses a poem and the author’s passion for it, to bring together various threads of her own life, both before having a family, while on the threshold of birth, being in proximity to death, experiencing love and daring to author a work that bursts beyond genre, challenges academia and waves the flag for women in all her multifaceted complexity.  Language, poetry, babies, dark nights of the soul, creativity, writing, Irish life, the burying and rise of women authors working in partnership.

Much of this book was written sitting inside her car, parked up after dropping her children at school. Forget excuses about finding time to write, or a room of one’s own, Ni Ghriofa deserves a prize for perseverance, achievement, breaking all convention and writing an utterly engaging 21st century kick-ass, feminist oeuvre. Just brilliant. Read it people!

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

Here, in no particular order is the best of the fiction I read in 2020, reading experiences that have stayed with me, that I continue to highly recommend to you all, just click on a title to read my original review:

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin (France) tr. Hildegarde Serle – this was the last book I read in 2020 and a fitting way to end the year, it is a beautiful translation of what was a bestseller in France in 2018, about a young woman who becomes a train level-crossing keeper, then cemetery-keeper. It a story of love, loss and redemption told through an extensive cast of characters, both living and not, demonstrating the interconnectivity of lives, viewed through a compassionate lens. Evocative, lyrical, character lead and quintessentially French.

The Book of Harlan, Bernice McFadden (US) – this work of historical fiction, in part inspired by the author’s own family was hugely memorable and one of the first in 2020 that really stood out for me. It was also the book that lead me into a bit of Harlem Renaissance period of reading which uncovered some excellent older reads that I adored. It follows the life of Harlan from his early years with his grandparents to Harlem and the music scene, to Paris and Germany, and while reading I was accompanied by the music of that era which McFadden incorporates brilliantly into the narrative and had me pausing, listening, watching and learning all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen (US) (semi-autobiographical) – while the reading world in 2020 was devouring Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a contemporary exploration of the American history of passing, I opted to read Nella Larsen’s classic novellas Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). I enjoyed Passing, however the semi-autobiographical Quicksand was equally brilliant. It follows the life of a young woman, a third culture kid of mixed race parentage with a white mother from Denmark and a black father from the Danish West Indies (as were Nella’s parents), foreigners, immigrants, a child growing up with little connection to either culture, who has trouble settling in to the society she is born into. Brilliantly written and observed, I highly recommend it.

Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox (French) – I love reading Condé and managed another two this year including I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem however Crossing the Mangrove was a stand out and had me shaking my head in admiration of her talent. Here she returns to a Caribbean setting, where the death and subsequent funeral of an outsider brings together a number of characters, each of whom narrate a chapter, revealing the multilayered diversity of island society. Though the man’s death is a mystery, it is is more of a ‘noir‘ novel, no tidy resolution, rather an insightful, penetrative look at the folly of life. Brilliant, one I want to reread.

Circe, Madeline Miller (US) – I’d wanted to read this for a while and finally did so earlier in the year and loved it. With Circe, Miller brings a refreshing, feminist perspective to an ancient Greek myth, that reconsiders the motivations of the jealous nymph, allowing her to evolve and grow into the fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that she becomes while living in exile. Rather than the evil sorceress men have historically depicted her as, here we meet a more nuanced, balanced and complex character. Brilliant.

The Adventures of China Iron, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina), tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre (Spanish) – short listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 this was one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a while, a contemporary retelling of a well-known Argentinian gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández; that title a lament for a disappearing way of life, whereas this is an elegy to what could have been, told from the perspective of his little mentioned wife, a tale of adventure, emancipation, sexual freedom and liberation. It didn’t win, but it remains a firm favourite of the year for me.

A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy), tr. Ann Goldstein – this novella was an unexpected surprise, I read four books translated from Italian this year, Elena Ferrante’s latest The Lying Life of Adults and her debut Troubling Love, both of which were excellent, but it was this novella that has stayed in my mind. A thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she was born to without being told why. Determined to unravel the cause of abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and now by her adoptive family, the book explores the changes that happen as she detaches from one and becomes entwined in the other. It’s brilliantly depicted, thought provoking and insightful.

Auē, Becky Manawatu (NZ) – last year I read the winner of the NZ Book Award This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman and this year when Auē took the prize, I bought a copy immediately. Very different books, both explore a darker aspect of New Zealand life. Aue has you on the edge of the seat, following the lives of an eight year old boy, his older brother and a couple they are connected to. The characters are unforgettable, portrayed with empathy without indulging sentimentality. The proximity of vulnerability to brutality is intense and unforgettable. You won’t read anything else like this in 2020. Extraordinary literary fiction from elsewhere. Go on. Read it.

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao (Taiwan) tr. Mike Fu (Chinese) – incredible that it has taken 40 years for this title to come to our attention and be translated. This was definitely the funniest, sometimes scariest and surprising read of the year. Sanmao wasn’t exactly a hippy, she was one of a kind, a woman way ahead of her time and outside of her culture, travelling with her Spanish boyfriend in the 70’s with the intention to live in the Spanish Sahara like a local, thanks to a deep passion for the landscape and curiosity for its people. The situations she finds herself in, the people she meets and the tender love affair with the man who indulges her whims, was a close runner up for outstanding read of the year.

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty, Carlo & Renzo Piano (Italy), tr. Will Schutt – another from Italy, this is a father and son adventure, a journalist and an architect who take an eight month trip by boat around the world, visiting the various sites of Renzo Piano’s architectural constructions. I requested it on a whim and found it both educational, entertaining, philosophical and surprisingly riveting. This now 80 year old father is an inspiration and his son an engaging, provocative narrator. It left me wishing that more familial partnerships could come together to capture these kind of conversations, that have such universal appeal.

Handiwork, Sara Baume (Ireland) – an author whose name I was familiar with, I read Handiwork after finding it was published by Tramp Press, who published A Ghost in the Throat. I couldn’t believe my luck to have come across another title that blurs the boundaries of genre. Handiwork is an artwork, a lyrical account of a year spent sculpting and painting small birds for an installation. Her morning she spends writing, her afternoons making stuff with her hands, just her Dad and Grandad did before her. An eclectic collage of thoughts, observations, memories and quotes from various masters, it was a total pleasure to read.

A Spell in the Wild, A Year & Six Centuries of Magic, Alice Tarbuck (Scotland) – after reading two novels about Tituba, the black slave woman accused of witchcraft, I decided to read a book with a contemporary view of witchcraft, now that we are safely beyond the era when admitting to being partial to the practice of ritual outside of acceptable religion could get you hanged. And I stumbled across the incredibly knowledgeable author Dr Alice Tarbuck, who puts the formality of her PhD aside to share her monthly rituals, spells and historical anecdotes from a vast canon of literature that portrayed women as something wicked and powerful that needed to be suppressed if not put down. Her six centuries of magic is quite the opposite, unputdownable.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Irene Wilkerson (US) – the product of years of research, and an intimate relationship with three people, from three different states and decades through whom Wilkerson recounts history, this is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow Southern states of America, beginning just after WW1 in 1915, continuing until the 1970’s. It’s a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old and a fascinating insight into black American history told in a compelling way.

* * * * * * *

And there it is, a summary of the most memorable books I read in 2020, thank you for your patience if you managed to read this far! Do you have a few absolute favourite reads of the year to share? Did you read any of those I mention here? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Fresh Water for Flowers by Valérie Perrin tr.Hildegarde Serle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level Crossing Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a day goes by without us thinking of you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven make the Shortlist

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Three Commended By the Judges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the winner is…

Translated Fiction The Eight Life

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

translated from German by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

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

CATHERINE TAYLOR, THE ECONOMIST

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante translated Ann Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Class Divide

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

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

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

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante

Photo by Luidi Cardoso on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

My Reviews of Ferrante Books

Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Troubling Love (novel)

The Days of Abandonment (novel)

The Neapolitan Quartet: (tetralogy – 4 novels)

My Brilliant Friend

The Story of a New Name

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The Story of the Lost Child

Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey (nonfiction)

Further Reading

Review, Guardian:  a rebel rich girl comes of age

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

 

Elena Ferrante Shares 40 Favourite Books by Female Authors

As I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Lying Life of Adults published in September 2020 and being a fan of many of her books to date, including My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and Frantumaglia, I was interested to learn thanks to the publisher Europa Editions that:

Elena Ferrante has compiled a list of novels close to her heart, all by women authors, and exclusively for Bookshop.org, the new alternative to Amazon for socially conscious shoppers wanting to support high street bookshops when they shop online.

Given the type of characters and narratives Elena Ferrante is known for, her stories usually set in or have a connection with the working class neighbourhood of Naples and concern female protagonists coming to terms with their situation, whether they are girls, young mothers, grieving daughters or an adolescent trying to make sense of the adult world, I thought it would be interesting to know which authors she gravitates towards, who she has been influenced by and being Italian, she is likely to have read books that might be outside the common anglo reading mainstream.

I’m sharing the list here as an easy reference for me to look at and will link any of the titles I have already read to my reviews. I have read 13 of the titles, though only reviewed six of them.

Elena FerranteI’ve also added the countries the author is associated with, either by birth and/or nationality, as I find that helpful, it being one of the criteria by which I decide whether to read a book or not – to avoid always reading works from the same cultural influence.

The list is quite Euro-American influenced, with only one African representation (or two if you count Doris Lessing), so while not quite as diverse as what I like to read, it’s an interesting exploration of the female pysche through female literature of the ages from those cultures represented.

I did also read that the list was limited by what is available in English and by what is available from the Bookshop, so there are titles that haven’t been shared because either they haven’t been translated into English or are not available. I wish they had been included because that might have sparked an even more interesting debate about the lack of availability of works in other languages and to hear the chorus of readers who might have helped persuade publishers to do something about that.

Juliana at The Blank Garden has more to say about that in her critique of the list (see the link to her blog post below), she is very widely read across languages, a wonderful reviewer and has read 28 of the titles. I’ll be referring to her favourites of Elena’s favourites as a further guide!

Elena Ferrante’s top 40 books by female authors

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria/America)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Iran/Australia) translated by Anonymous
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (Austria) translated by Philip Boehm (German)
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (US)
Outline by Rachel Cusk (UK)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (US)
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Iran/France) translated by Tina Kover
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (France) translated by Barbara Bray
The Years by Annie Ernaux (France) translated by Alison Strayer
Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg (Italy) translated by Jenny McPhee
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (US)
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Canada)
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Japan) translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (Zimbabwe/UK)
The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (Ukraine/Brazil) translated by Idra Novey
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein
Beloved by Toni Morrison (US)
Dear Life by Alice Munro (Canada)
The Bell by Iris Murdoch (UK)
Accabadora by Michela Murgia (Italy) translated by Silvester Mazzarella
Le Bal by Irene Nemirovsky (Ukraine/France) translated by Sandra Smith
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (US)
The Love Object: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien (Ireland)
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (US)
Evening Descends Upon the Hills: Stories from Naples by Anna Maria Ortese (Italy) translated by Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee
Gilead by Marylynne Robinson (US)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (UK)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (US)
The Door by Magda Szabò (Hungary) translated by Len Rix
Cassandra by Christa Wolf (Poland/Germany) translated by Jan van Heurck
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (US)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium/US) translated by Grace Frick

Further Reading

Critic of the List: Elena Ferrante’s Shopping Advice | Reading Project

Article, Guardian: ‘This is revolutionary’: new online bookshop unites indies to rival Amazon

Article, Guardian: List by pseudonymous author of Neapolitan novels includes Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney and several Italian classics

 

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Europa Editions Italian Literature Donatella Di PietrantonioA Girl Returned came to my attention because I like to see what Europa Editions are going to be publishing, they are known for bringing Italian literature to readers of the English language and their big title in 2020 will be Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. One I will be reading soon.

The Adoptee Experience

I chose to read A Girl Returned because I am interested in reading as much as possible, fiction or nonfiction, stories that portray the adoptee experience. And the premise of this book is shocking as the title suggests, when a thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she is born into without being told why or there appearing to be any clear motive.

Though as anyone with a connection with adoption will know, it is rare for the process to exist without the presence of secrets, lies, clandestine activities, resentments, heartbreak and denial.

Book Review

I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother.

The story opens as a 13-year-old girl struggles up the stairs of an apartment with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes. The door is opened by her sister Adriana, whom she has never met.

We looked like each then, more than we do as adults.

Through the months of adjustment that follow, thrown back into the reluctant family she was born into, events are narrated with hindsight, as her memory of that vision of her sister attests. She is determined to unravel the cause of this separation and abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and at 13 by her adoptive family, the latter, whose love she never questioned.

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

Aware her mother had been suffering, she continues to worry and wonder about her, we the reader do too, trying to imagine and fearful of what might have ailed her that she was unable to share with her only daughter.

Who knew how my mother was. Whether she’d started eating again, whether she was getting out of bed more often. Or if instead she’d been taken to hospital. She hadn’t wanted to tell me anything about her illness, certainly she didn’t want to frighten me, but I had seen her suffering in the past months, she hadn’t even gone to the beach, she who was usually there in the first warm days of May. With her permission I went to our umbrella by myself, since I was grown up now, she said. I had gone the day before my departure and had even had fun with my friends: I didn’t believe that my parents would really find the courage to give me back.

As time passes, small clues diminish her resolve and trust in those around her, who seem to believe in or at least practice, silence and deception. The only way will be to take matters into her own hands.

The idea came to me at night, I reported it to Patrizia in the morning under the umbrella.

The one unexpected joy in her changed circumstances, though she accepts it reluctantly and is wary of it, is the fierce love, and admiration tinged with jealousy, she receives from her younger sister. Like candle light in a dark room, she is luminous yet capable of harm. There are wild differences, given their different upbringings, but there exists the thread of undeniable connection.

I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.

Identity, Exile and The Mother

In a brilliant essay-style review, translator Stiliana Milkova suggests that the main concern of the novel is how essential the role of the mother is to our sense of identity.

Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her.

The longer she stays in this forced exile, the more detached she becomes from both her present and her past, to who she was, is. So much had been tied to a mother’s love or bond. Though she remembers the feeling of being loved, she now questions it, faced with such devastating evidence.

In certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.

Photo by Bahaa A. Shawqi on Pexels.com

A short novel, A Girl Returned packs a powerful, moving punch and generously provides that glimmer of hope, in an unexpected alliance. Rereading these passages I highlighted makes me wish to repeat the entire reading experience, the shock, the solace, the resistance and resilience.

We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world.

Highly Recommended.

Reviews

Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2014, translated to English in 2016)

My Mother is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2011, translated into English 2015)

Further Reading

Reviews by Translators: The Mother Of All Questions: Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s “A Girl Returned,” tr. Ann Goldstein by Stiliano Milkova

Article New York Times: ‘The Ferrante Effect’: In Italy, Women Writers Are Ascendant by Anna Momigliano

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

Maresi, The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff (Finland)

translated by Annie Prime (from Swedish) – like Tove Jansson, Maria Turtschaninoff is from a Swedish speaking part of Finland.

A Utopian Island of Women

Maresi Finland YA WIT MonthRed Abbey is situated on the island Menos, run by women, a kind of educational refuge that has elements of sounding like a boarding school and a convent. On the mainland some are not even sure if it is myth or reality, but they send their girls there in hope that the rumours are trues. We learn that Maresi was sent there by her family during ‘Hunger Winter’ and that the abundance of food, the genuine care and education she is given makes it a place she adores.

There are many reasons why a girl might come to the island. Sometimes poor families from the coast lands send a daughter here because they can not provide for her. Sometimes a family notice that their daughter has a sharp and enquiring mind and want to give her the best education a woman can get. Sometimes sick and disabled girls come here because they know the sisters can give them the best possible care…Sometimes girls come as runaways… Girls who show a thirst for knowledge in cultures where women are not allowed to know or say anything. In these lands, rumour of the Abbey’s existence lives in women’s songs and and forbidden folk tales told only in whispers, away from enemy ears. Nobody talks openly about our island but most people have heard of it anyway.

The Red Abbey Maresi feminist fantasy YAThere are two maps at the front of the book, one of Red Abbey, a walled area showing various buildings, such as Novice House, Knowledge House, Body’s Spring, Temple of the Rose, named steps and courtyards and a map of the island drawn by ‘Sister 0 in the second year of the reign of our thirty-second mother, based on the original by ‘Garai of the Blood in the reign of First Mother’

As the novel opens a ship is sighted and the girls are joined by Jai, who becomes shadow to Maresi, it is clear she has been traumatised by an experience and continues to live in fear, believing that what she ran from will not relent until she is found.

Most of the first two thirds is made up of understanding their daily life, they are being educated both intellectually and develop a strong connection to nature. The community is able to survive and thrive due to their sustainable harvesting of a red dye from blood snails. Maresi loves nothing more than acquiring knowledge and spends every evening in Knowledge House reading the scrolls.

That evening I chose the ancient tales of the First Sisters. I have always loved reading about their journey to the island, their struggle to build Knowledge House and their survival in the first few years with nothing but fish and foraged wild fruits and berries as sustenance. Life on the island was difficult for the first few years. It did not get easier until some decades later, when they discovered the bloodsnail colony and the silver began to flow in.

Only women and girls are permitted on the island and when a threat seems imminent it requires the women to use all their knowledge and resources and it is as this happens that the girls begin to discover their unique talents and the courage to use them.

Sisterhood, Knowledge, Empowerment and True Courage

Bloodsnails Maresi Red Abbey

Photo by Alin Luna on Pexels.com

Described as a tale of sisterhood, survival and fighting against the odds, I chose this because it sounded like an empowering read for young women/adolescents and because it has been imagined and written by a woman from another culture/language, drawing on her storytelling tradition and experience.

I really enjoyed the story and characters and the community created on the island, it reminded me a little of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, who lives on an island, only she is in exile, so mostly alone, but it has that similar utopian feeling of the desire to create a nurturing environment where women live in harmony with nature and have access to education and knowledge, without the demands or agendas of men or the family dynamic and its expectations.

Maresi is the first in a trilogy, also described as feminist fantasy, the second book is Naondel and the the final Maresi Red Mantle.

Where Does the Inspiration Come From?

What was the inspiration behind the Red Abbey? And what kind of research did you undergo during the writing process? – from an interview by Bluebird Reviews 

It all started with a photograph exhibition.

I saw the exhibition many years before I began working on Maresi. It took place in Helsinki, and showcased photographs from Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula with a 1000-year-old monastic community. The pictures were breathtakingly beautiful and the houses of the monasteries represented crumbling splendour. Many of them were perched on top of steep cliffs, like eagles’ nests. I walked around with my notebook, making notes and getting very inspired.

And also, angry.

Because for a thousand years, no woman has been allowed on the island. Even today only male pilgrims are able to set foot on the island. The women get to take a boat ride and view the monasteries from the sea. And I thought “How is it possible that there’s a place today, in Europe, where women aren’t allowed?” This thought was immediately followed by: “And what would happen if I turned it on its head and there was an island, and an Abbey, where only women and girls are allowed? But because it would be set in my fantasy world, there would be a concrete reason why men are not allowed.”

Can you tell us a bit about the mythology of the Mother, Maiden, and Crone? What’s the background story and where did the idea come from? – interview by Huriyah Quadri, The Selkie

As I created the Red Abbey for the first book, I knew the women and girls had to worship something – it’s an abbey, after all – but in this fantasy world, our religions don’t exist. So I looked further back in history, to what humans believed in before the three monotheistic religions became dominant, and found goddess-worshipping cultures. I researched them, stole the best bits and made my own concoction.

The Author, Maria Turtschaninoff

Teenage and Young Adult author, Maria Turtschaninoff was born in 1977 and lives in Finland. She is the author of many books about magical worlds and has been awarded the Swedish YLE Literature prize and has twice won the Society of Swedish Literature Prize. She has also been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Carnegie Medal.

The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

translated by David Ball, Nicole Ball

An Unexpected Trans-Siberian Railway Trip

le canapé rouge the red sofa michèle Lesbre

A French novella that I read in an afternoon, we accompany our Parisian protagonist Anne, on a train journey towards Lake Baikal, in Southern Siberia, a journey she makes on a local train, having spontaneously decided to find out why her friend Gyl is no longer responding to her letters.

For the first six months he had written often, telling me he had time to go fishing for omul in the lake and make kites for children.
And then, silence.

Once on the train and it’s a long journey, she has time to think and recall their friendship, they were lovers many years ago and while she holds no flame for him, the journey allows her to reflect on the highs and lows of their union.

I knew that the return trip is the real journey, when it floods the days that follow, so much so that it creates the prolonged sensation of one time getting lost in another, of one space losing itself in another. Images are superimposed on one another – a secret alchemy, a depth of field in which our shadows seem more real than ourselves. That is where the truth of the voyage lies.

Get To Know Your Neighbour

What she does spend time thinking of, is her recent past and another spontaneous decision, to knock on the door of a neighbour whom she has never seen, an elderly woman.

I had never run into her in the lobby of the building, not on the stairs. I knew all the other people who lived there, or at least their names and faces, but Clémence Barrot remained a mystery. No sounds would ever reach me when I walked by her door, and if I asked questions about her, all I got were laconic answers and knowing looks…A character!

The door is opened by a young girl and peering inside she sees the older woman sitting on a red sofa by a window. As an excuse for her curiosity she mentions there might be noise as she has people coming for dinner that evening. The woman asks her a favour in return for the anticipated inconvenience.

With a big smile, she retorted that she would rather we proceeded differently: for all past dinners, for this one and the next ones, she would only ask in exchange that I occasionally read to her a little, if I had the time.

Passionate French Women Who Faced Death Unflinchingly

And so we meet some bold French female heroines of the past, sadly a number of whom for their feminist inclinations in the wrong era, lose their lives at the guillotine.

“Tell me about that gutsy girl again,” Clémence Barrot would sometimes ask about Marion de Faouët and her army of brigands. She had, just as I did, a real affection for that child who had not grown up to become a lady’s companion despite all the efforts of the Jaffré sisters. No, she became a leader of men instead, an avenger of Brittany which had been starved during the 1740’s.

A wild beauty, faithful to her village, her loves and her ideals, Marion had been imprisoned several times before dying on the gallows at the age of thirty-eight.

While these stream of consciousness thoughts pass through her mind, various locals enter and exit the train. She is happy to be immersed in the languages of the area and in two books she has brought with her, Dostoevsky’s War and Peace and a book by the philosopher Jankélévitch.

Travel To Exotic Destinations Through Story

le canapé rouge the red sofa Michèle Lesbre WIT Month

Becoming particularly interested in one man whom she can’t communicate with – Igor – she imagines things about him from the little she observes and seeks him out more than one time when he disappears.

I had just read ‘There are encounters with people completely unknown to us who trigger our interest at first sight, suddenly, before a word has even been said…”

It’s an engaging read considering not much happens, but there is just the right mix of action and reflection and indeed, by the end a build up to a couple of dramas and quiet resolution.

I really enjoyed the read and was surprised at how captivated I was by the journey. I do love long train journey’s and hers was such an indulgent whim, that the suspension of what she will encounter is enough to keep the reader interested, and the relationship with her elderly neighbour provides a brilliant counterpoint and empathic adjunct, becoming the more significant event to the ‘thousands of miles’ distraction.

N.B. This was one of the many Seagull Books offered weekly to readers during the period of confinement.

Further Reading

Reviewed by Rough Ghosts 

Seagull Books: More of their extensive collection of titles by Women In Translation