The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio De Giovanni tr. Andrew Shegaar #WorldNoir

Crime fiction isn’t my usual choice, but I’ve been reading Italian literature in the past week, and since this is also set in Naples and came from Europa Editions, I decided to take a break from the more literary style and read this novel classified as ‘world noir‘ (a tribute and new imprint dedicated to the best in international crime fiction).

A quick look up tells me that noir fiction has its roots in hard-boiled fiction ( a tough, unsentimental style American of crime writing) where the protagonist is often an outcast, alienated. However, Kim Fay from LA Review of Books, when reading noir, used to preparing herself for ‘bleak cynicism and uncomfortable moral ambiguity’ is pleasantly surprised, referring to De Giovanni’s Pizzofalcone precinct series and empathetic characters as ‘tender noir’:

“Reading the Pizzofalcone Precinct series, by Maurizio de Giovanni, I quickly discovered that I can still be surprised. These books didn’t get to me with an extra dose of soul-sucking fatalism or some harrowing new breed of self-destructive protagonist. Instead, their emotional “gotcha!” came in the unexpected form of tenderness.

Tender noir? Is such a thing possible? Yes — and it adds a richness that many noir novels lack.” Kim Fay, LARB

As for alienated, the entire team at the Pizzofalcone precinct in Naples fit that mould, the place was about to be closed down, due to the previous investigative branch have been suspended for being implicated in a crime, the precinct may still be shut down, depending on how this new team of misfits work together and whether they succeed.
The Pizzofalcone precinct covers four distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic, it is like a microcosm of the city of Naples, an area where each of it many elements are likely to sidle up against one another.

“The precinct isn’t big, but its crowded; it encompasses a part of the Spanish Quarter and stretches on down to the waterfront. Four different worlds, in other words: the lumpenproletariat, as we used to say in the old days; the white-collar middle class; the businessmen of the upper middle-class; and the aristocracy. Everything except manufacturing, in an area barely three kilometres on a side. One of the oldest police districts in the city, small but strategic.”

All of them have been transferred from their previous workplaces, renegades who are unwelcome where they currently are, involved in some kind of misdemeanour – although in the case of the Sicilican Inspector Lojacono, who becomes the lead investigator of the new murder case, he was both specially requested due to his reputation and passed on without regret, due to allegations of corruption that have tainted and alienated him, since he showed everyone up in his last case by solving it while everyone else was looking in a different direction.

He is new to Naples, he has a teenage daughter he is worried about, a pizza waitress who is eyeing him up and a high-ranking magistrate whom he daydreams inappropriately of.

The wife of a notary is found dead in their apartment with no forced entry and so they set to and investigate, introducing us to various elements of working and non-working Neapolitan life, including an elderly woman who sits at her window all day, every day and is suspicious about the new occupant of an apartment opposite her, a beautiful young woman also never leaves her apartment.

We are also introduced to the obsession of the policemen Giorgio Pisanelli, who collects information about all the recent suicides in the precinct, convinced there is a connection between them and that they are not suicides.

It’s a well-paced, intriguing read, a few short chapters in italics, portraying characters who may be suspects, characters who are trying to hide something, this narrative adding to the mystery and has the reader trying to guess who it might be.  I really enjoyed it and even though I didn’t guess the revelation at the end, I appreciated that it wasn’t overly full of twists, neither was it completely obvious.

The author succeeds in portraying Naples both through the eyes of the newcomer and with the familiarity of a local, adding a compelling element of discovery and opening the way for future instalments. The team was well portrayed, interesting but quirky characters, that clearly will continue, since the resolution of this crime should serve to keep the precinct open, these renegades forming into a solid team while navigating the fine edge between the ongoing surety of their positions and a volatile potential to destroy it with one reckless mistake.

Maurizio de Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958 and for many years worked in a bank, though not a natural vocation, his colleagues attest he always had his nose in a book and it was in fact they who entered him in a short story competition in 2005 for ‘giallo novelists’ (a 20th-century Italian mystery, thriller or horror genre of literature and film) that was the catalyst to his becoming a successful crime writer.

That story introduced detective Commissario Ricciardi and spawned a series of books set in 1930 Naples, fascist Italy. His parents were born in 1930’s Naples, their lives and experiences clearly an influence contributing to his passionate for pre-war Naples of the 1930’s and the city today.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, originally published in 2013, marked his transition from the noir genre to the police procedural and a move from the 1930’s to contemporary life in Naples. The series featuring Inspector Lojacono continues (there are six books in Italian) and is being made into a television series in 2017.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Edition, for providing a copy of this book.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here

 

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2017 #BaileysPrize

Today the judges chose six novels for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and had this to say:

““It has been a great privilege to Chair the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in a year which has proved exceptional for writing of both quality and originality. It was quite a challenge to whittle this fantastic longlist of 16 books down to only six… These were the six novels that stayed with all of us well beyond the final page.” Tessa Ross

The shortlisted books are as follows:

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (review)
The Power  Naomi Alderman
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (review)

In my earlier post on the Baileys Prize Longlist, I listed all the novels with a summary of what they are about, you can refer to that post linked here to know more about all the 16 longlisted books.

For three of the titles below, I have taken a few quotes from Q& A interviews done with the respective authors by the Prize team, to give you a flavour of their motivations in writing the book and their literary inspirations and where that isn’t available, a summary of the blurb.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

– In 1990 Canada , 10-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens, Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shangahi Conservatory in the 1960s and events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.

On The Book

“I wanted the novel to unfold in a very specific time frame, the lifetime of an individual – the birth, life and death of a composer we know as Sparrow. He’s born at a historical crossroads: the fall of China’s Republican government and the birth of Communist China. History pulls his life apart, he’s at the mercy of so many forces, and yet he’s also free. In one sense, his life is taken from him; in another, it’s the only life he has and he must live it.”

Quotable Quote

“I’ve been troubled by language for a long time… How language can build meaning but also conceal or demean it.” Madeleine Thien

Literary Heroes

Alice Munro, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Shirley Hazzard, Yiyun Li, Dionne Brand, Hannah Arendt and so many more.

P.S. I have this on my shelf, so I will definitely be reading it next!

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant

– It’s 1949, the Second World War is over and a new decade of recovery is beginning, but for East End teenage twins who have been living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium in Kent to take the cure and submit to the authority of the doctors, learning the deferential way of the patient.

On The Book

“I did two long interviews with a woman who was x-rayed to take up her place at university in 1949. It was when she told me about the sanatorium going over to the NHS and a new influx off patients mixing with the middle-classes, that I knew that there was a story and a novel. I did read up on the history of the disease and its treatments and of course Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and other novels about TB. It has been a rich source for novelists because it involves so much lying around thinking morbid thoughts.” Linda Grant

Quotable Quote

“I became a journalist because it was a means of being paid to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them personal questions and then write about what they had told me, while I was waiting to have a novel to write.”

 

Naomi Alderman, The Power

– Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of this extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power were in women’s hands?

On The Book

“I didn’t start from the idea of making a matriarchal society. But the idea did come from a particular moment in my life. I was going through a really horrible breakup, one of those ones where you wake up every morning, have a cry and then get on with your day. And in the middle of all this emotional turmoil, I got onto the tube and saw a poster advertising a movie with a photograph of a beautiful woman crying, beautifully. And in that moment it felt like the whole of the society I live in saying to me “oh yes, we like it when you cry, we think it’s sexy”. And something just snapped in me and all I could think was: what would it take for me to be able to get onto this tube train and see a sexy photo of a *man* crying? What’s the smallest thing I could change? And this novel is the answer to that question, or at least an attempt to think it through for myself. …I just had this idea about women developing a strange new power.”

Quotable Quote

“Any woman who has made her living in writing is my hero and my friend; what a thing it is to be able to do, and how hard generations of women have fought so that I could be allowed it!” Naomi Alderman

Literary Heroes

Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Cavendish, Ursula Le Guin, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Carol Shields, Mary Stewart, PD James, Marjane Satrapi, Alice Monroe, Amy Levy, Alison Bechdel, Han Kang.

Stay With Me, Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀ (reviewed)

– Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. A devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.

 

The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan

– Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.
But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

– Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place. Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

**************

So there is the shortlist! Easy to pick a favourite when I’ve only read one, I really recommend you read Stay With Me if you haven’t already, it’s a superb book and insight into the pressures of family expectations.

So, which is your favourite from the list, or which are you drawn to read? Any disappointments?

The winning novel will be announced on 7 June 2017!

Order any of the Books Via Book Depository via this link

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a popular Turkish author, and a Rumi scholar, raised by her mother and grandmother, experiencing a childhood and influences that fed a fertile imagination. Now based in London, this is her tenth novel. Since reading The Forty Rules of Love, the first of her novels to actively reference her Rumi knowledge and learnings, I’ve read the excellent The Bastard of Istanbul, Honour and her nonfiction essay The Happiness of Blond People. She is an interesting and unique author because of her ability to straddle the thinking of both East and West, captured through engaging characters and storytelling; she demonstrated that for all our supposed differences, we are grappling with similar issues.

Three Daughters of Eve is an interesting, quietly provocative, philosophical novel. Shafak brilliantly sets up a character study of Peri, our Turkish protagonist, who on her way to a dinner party to meet her husband, decides to abandon her car in the middle of a traffic jam, in pursuit of an opportunistic handbag thief.

“Like a magic wand in the wrong hands, the traffic turned minutes into hours, humans into brutes and any trace of sanity into sheer lunacy.”

There is a violent, unsettling altercation after which she will continue on her way, shaken, but in one piece and determined not to change her plans. However this episode and the memories it awakens, will over the course of the evening, reveal her conflicted self and cause her to consider her life and address a significant event of the past, as the present madness moves forward towards astonishing heights.

“Though easy to forget at times, the city was a stormy sea swollen with drifting icebergs of masculinity, and it was better to manoeuvre away from them, gingerly and smartly, for one never knew how much danger lay beneath the surface.”

The three daughters are the three girls who appear in the photo that falls out of her handbag, referred to as the sinner, the believer and the confused. They are three young Muslim students at Oxford university, including Peri (the confused), who will all take the same class with Professor Azur and for a time they will live together. The girls all have different views, as do their fellow classmates, in the class about ‘understanding God’, a guided philosophical think-tank, where the handpicked students are forbidden to discuss religion, and must instead learn to express their opinions without the framework of doctrine.

Thus the novel is narrated across two timelines, the present day Istanbul (2016) en route to and at a bourgeoise dinner party and a period of time at the university in Oxford (2000).

Shirin is the liberal-minded sinner with no excuses or apologies for who she is, she loves to provoke reaction and is a willing accomplice come recruiter to the Professor’s circle, it is she who brings the conservative believer Mona and Peri together.

Shafak’s account of Peri’s parents and family is brilliantly characterised and aptly portrays why she is given the label of ‘confused’, they are complete opposites and over time become even more so, her two brothers are also polar opposite while Peri, loaded with empathy, understands all their positions, but can not stand in either of their shoes. Her plan to study in England, supported by her father and a cause of concern for her mother, was more of an escape for her than the brilliant opportunity her father imagined.

“They were as incompatible as tavern and mosque. The frowns that descended on their brows, the stiffness that infused their voices, identified them not as a couple in love, but as opponents in a game of chess…

Religion had plummeted into their lives as unexpectedly as a meteor, and created a chasm, separating the family into two clashing camps.”

Despite education, philosophical questions and new friends, Peri is a young, Turkish woman coming to live in a foreign country; as I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice the synchronicity between this combination of time, space and circumstance that made Peri vulnerable to manipulative intent and the protagonist of Claire Fuller’s excellent novel Swimming Lessons, a novel that chose not to explore the family background and cultural references of its young, female Norwegian university student, and rather focuses on the life that followed an equally significant turning point.

Here in Elif Shafak’s novel is an attempt to provide an experience with its cultural context. They are both young impressionable women having life-changing experiences in a foreign culture, with little support or guidance, they are lost in an age-appropriate confusion of emotions, one that is not on the same wavelength as the object of their desire.

Elif Shafak speaking in Bulgaria
Photo courtesy of Rayna Tzvetkova

While I enjoyed the novel and love Elif Shafak’s writing and philosophical questioning, there was a point very near the end, where events became too surreal for me to stay captured in the literary bubble of considering that evening dinner party in 2016 legitimate. It may be a satire of the Turkish elite, some of the things that happen and that are said are a mix of humorous and dramatic, however that’s not the tone of the novel as a whole.

I don’t know why the author chose to brings things together in the manner she did, for me personally it distracted from the thought process I’d spent the entire novel developing, and resulted in a suspension of belief, a kind of clocking out. I was waiting for the resolution, that’s where it was heading, and it does attempt to do that, however, as she not so convincingly demonstrates, humans can be unpredictable, and their actions often make no sense at all.

An excellent and thought-provoking novel that I recommend, despite a somewhat less well executed ending.

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Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

To purchase a copy via Book Depository, click here

Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list #MBI2017

The Man Booker International Prize used to appear every two years and the authors nominated were not just writers in translation, they were from outside the UK and a nomination was for their body of work, not for one recently published book. That prize, for a translated work of fiction was called, the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

Now the two have joined together, with the format being the same as the IFFP prize and the name Man Booker International.

The judges for 2017  are Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, translator Daniel Hahn; award-winning poet Helen Mort; Turkish author and academic Elif Shafak and Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe.

“Fiction in translation is flourishing: in these times when walls are being built, this explosion of brilliant ideas from around the world arriving into the English language feels more important than ever.” Nick Barley, Chair

Last year the prize was won by the South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith, for The Vegetarian.

MBI long list 2017

The 2017 longlist comprises 13 titles (from 126 submissions) translated into English from 11 languages: (summaries extracted from the Man Booker Prize website), the shortlist will be announced on April 20 and the winner on June 14th.

Title, Author (nationality), Translator

Compass by Mathias Enard (France), (tr. Charlotte Mandell) – As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, and writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), (tr.Eliza Marciniak) – Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community in 1980s Poland. Wiola’s father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstresses’s ‘secret’ room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland both recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel) (tr.Jessica Cohen) – In a comedy club in a small Israeli town, an audience arrives expecting an evening of amusement and see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovale Gee, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), (tr.David McKay) – Shortly before his death, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave his grandson a set of notebooks containing detailed memories of his life. He grew up in poverty around 1900, the son of a struggling church painter who died young, and went to work in an iron foundry at 13. Afternoons with his father working on a church fresco were heaven; the iron foundry an inferno. During WW1, Urbain was on the front line confronting the invading Germans, haunted by events he can’t forget. War ends, he marries, then tragedy. Urbain recovers and like the obedient soldier he is, dutifully fulfils the expectations of family. Observations of a marriage with a sad secret at its heart, consolation found in art and painting.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (tr.Don Shaw) – Ingrid Barrøy is born on a family owned island, her father dreams of a jetty to connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – and a question Ingrid must never ask. Island life is hard, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), (tr.John Hodgson) – At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the main square of Constantinople, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy. Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, is charged with transporting heads to the capital – a task he relishes and performs with fervour. But as he travels through obscure and impoverished territories, he makes money from illicit side-shows, offering villagers the spectacle of death. The head of the rebellious Albanian governor would fetch a very high price.

Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), (tr.Phil Roughton) – Keflavik: a town that has been called the darkest place in Iceland, surrounded by black lava fields, hemmed in by a sea that may not be fished. Its livelihood depends entirely on a U.S. military base, a conduit for American influences that shaped Icelandic culture and ethics from the 1950s to the dawn of the new millennium. It is to Keflavik that Ari, a writer and publisher, returns from Copenhagen at the behest of his dying father, two years after walking out on his wife and children. He is beset by memories of his youth, spent or misspent listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, fraternising with American servicemen – who are regarded by the locals with a mixture of admiration and contempt – and discovering girls. There is one girl in particular he could never forget – her fate has stayed with him all his life.

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), (tr.Carlos Rojas)  – With the Yi River on one side and the Balou Mountains on the other, the village of Explosion was founded a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing a volcanic eruption. But in the post-Mao era, the name takes on a new significance as the rural community grows explosively from a small village to a town to a city to a vast megalopolis. Behind this rapid expansion, three rival clans linked together by a web of ambition, madness and greed,  transform their hometown into a Babylon of modern times – an unrivalled urban superpower built on lies, sex and thievery.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), (tr.Helen Stevenson) – 1970 in the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist-Leninist revolution is ushering in a new age. Over at the orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire where young Moses has grown up, the revolution has strengthened the reign of terror of Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, the institution’s corrupt director. So Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire, where he finds a home with a larcenous band of Congolese Merry Men and among the Zairean prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But the authorities won’t leave Moses in peace, and intervene to chase both the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls out of town. All this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo? Or is he just losing his marbles?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), (tr.Katy Derbyshire) – Bricks and Mortar is the story of a city’s sex trade in the former GDR, from 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from prohibition to legality in the 20 years following the reunification of Germany. It focuses on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. And other voices: women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), (tr.Misha Hoekstra) – Sonja is an intelligent single woman in her 40s whose life lacks focus. The situation must change – but where to start? By learning to drive, perhaps. After all, how hard can it be? Very, as it turns out. Six months in, Sonja is still baffled by the basics and her instructor is eccentric. Sonja is also struggling with an acute case of vertigo, a sister who won’t talk to her, and a masseuse who is determined to solve her spiritual problems. Frenetic city life is a constant reminder that every man (and woman) is an island: she misses her rural childhood where ceilings were high and the sky was endless. Shifting gears is not proving easy.

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), (tr. Nicholas de Lange) – Set in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, Judas is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale and a radical rethinking of the concept of treason. Shmuel, a young, idealistic student, is drawn to a strange house and its mysterious occupants within. As he starts to uncover the house’s tangled history, he reaches an understanding that harks back not only to the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, but also to the beginning of Jerusalem itself – to Christianity, to Judaism, to Judas.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), (tr.Megan McDowell) – A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.

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 I haven’t read any of these titles, I’m naturally drawn towards the French translations, since they give me an idea of what people here are reading and enjoying, Black Moses sounds like an entertaining read.
Eileen Battersby has written an excellent article discussing the nominations, giving her opinion on them and a few notable omissions, I’ll be rereading her views before deciding what I might read and checking out the Shadow Panel reviews, a group of bloggers who will be reading the list and making their own conclusions on a short list and winner, from the 13 chosen here.
Further Reading:

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