Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

wolf winterSet in Swedish Lappland in 1717, Cecilia Ekbäck’s debut novel Wolf Winter follows a family of four, Maija, her husband Paavo and their daughters Frederika and Dorotea from a fishing village in their native Finland to the forested lands surrounding Sweden’s Blackåsen mountain.

They swap houses with Maija’s brother, deciding a life in the interior may be better suited to Paavo, who had developed numerous fears keeping him from earning his living at sea. However, when their daughters stumble across a dead body allegedly killed by wolves, on a route near the mountain, they begin to wonder whether they have left one dark dream for an even blacker nightmare.

Maiji suspects it was a crime and makes it her business to ask questions to an extremely reticent and unappreciative band of local settlers and itinerant Lapps. Her husband never questions her interference, even when present he plays no role and as soon as the first signs herald the approach of winter, he sets off alone for the coast, leaving the women-folk to survive the harsh physical elements and the even stranger mystical apparitions that some but not all will witness. Without a man to steer them out of trouble, the woman face many risks, not least being perceived as dabbling in witchcraft, as church records show has happened to a few others with similar inclinations who preceded them.

There is a new priest in town whom Maiji spends a few evenings shovelling snow with, holed up in her cabin, and the widow of the previous priest, who seems to know more than she is willing to pass on, brothers who steal wives, wolves whom some see and not others, and a teacher whose presence seems to awaken the angry ghosts of the departed.

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Lapps or Laplanders circa 1900

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get into this novel in the way I wanted to, though it wasn’t a difficult read.  It didn’t portray a sense of the era, it felt contemporary even though it did evoke a strong sense of place and it was clear there were no modern comforts. Perhaps it was the attitude and freedom of the protagonist that didn’t sit with the era.

The time spent with a number of the characters was so fleeting, it left too little of an impact and rendered them insufficient to develop an interest in. The storyline itself raised so many questions that went unanswered, like why did the husband go off and leave his family in such a vulnerable position when they could have gone with him and been protected. And why did the wife think she as a newcomer could become an investigator into a crime that clearly the locals were not happy about being questioned, especially when it threatened her safety. Her role was to assist in bringing new life (she was a kind of midwife) and yet at every turn she was endangering those close to her. The younger daughter nearly lost her feet to frostbite after trekking in a blizzard to ask the Lapps questions about the murder. I didn’t believe in Maiji’s intentions and relationships and the blurred line between reality and the mystical elements. I wanted to be drawn in by it, but was unable to brush off the scepticism.

So what drew me towards reading this novel in the first place?

Well the snowy winter setting was very appealing, the plot sounded intriguing and the praise of Hilary Mantel and the Library Journal, who had this to say definitely lured me in:

“The novel will appeal to readers who like their historical fiction dark and atmospheric, or mystery fans who are open to mysticism and unconventional sleuths. Readers who enjoyed the winter landscape and magical realism of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child may also want to try this.”  Library Journal

“The story creeps up and possesses the imagination; there’s something eerie in the way half-understood and only half-seen events leave their mark. It’s a powerful feat of suggestion, visually acute, skillfully written; it won’t easily erase its tracks in the reader’s mind.” Hilary Mantel

It was an interesting concept and disappointing that it wasn’t more engaging, but for those who like a good mystery with an element of hinted at magical realism, this could be just what Hilary Mantel suggests it is.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly made available in e-book format from the publisher via NetGalley.

The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares tr. by Margaret Jull Costa

A village high in the Pyrenees, mostly in ruin, houses one last ageing male resident who imagines those who will eventually discover him and all that has passed.

“Yes, that is probably how they will find me, still dressed and staring straight at them, much as I found Sabina amid the abandoned machinery in the mill. Except that, then, the only other witnesses were the dog and the grey moan of the mist as it caught and tore on the trees by the river.”

CIMG6791Julio Llamazares The Yellow Rain is an elegy to a forgotten village, a way of life, for a man who meets death long before it invites him to join it.

Ainielle is a village in the Spanish Pyrenees that has become abandoned and derelict, no one lives there any longer except this one man who refuses to let go of the past and will experience his last years, months, days in a kind of slow, yellowing reality.

“Solitude, it is true, has forced me to come face to face with myself. But also, as a consequence, to build thick walls of forgetting around my memories. Nothing so frightens a man as another man especially if they are one and the same – and that was the only way I had of surviving amid all this ruin and death, the only way of withstanding the loneliness and the fear of madness.”

A snake bite almost relieves him of his solitary existence, but even then he can’t help but fight against death’s shadows of invitation that sit uninvited next to his bedside.

“The panic and cold of death have long since ceased to frighten me. Before I discovered its black breath inside me, even before I was left all alone in Ainielle, like one more shadow amid the shadows of the dead, my father had already shown me by his example that death is only the first step on that journey into silence from which there is no return.”

Throughout the book, images of yellow and yellowing pervade, as everything succumbs to oblivion, a consequence of time passing and soon we are not sure if it is merely nature or the natural deterioration of an old man’s eyes, tainting everything he sees.

Source: Melancholy Morning by Vizibil

Source: Melancholy Morning by Vizibil

“But suddenly, at around two or three in the morning, a gentle breeze came up the river, and the window and the roof of the mill were suddenly covered by a dense, yellow rain. It was the dead leaves from the poplars falling; the slow, gentle autumn rain was returning once more to the mountains to cover the fields with old gold and the roads and the villages with a sweet, brutal melancholy. The rain lasted only a matter of minutes. Long enough, though, to stain the whole night yellow, and, by dawn, when the sunlight fell once more on the dead leaves and on my eyes, I understood that this was the rain which, autumn after autumn, day after day, slowly destroyed and corroded the plastered walls, the calendars, the edges of letters and photographs, and the abandoned machinery of the mill and my heart.”

Written in the future, the past and the present, in a lyrical style that for me never depresses though we might think it bleak, this ode to a changing landscape that is reverting back to its true nature is haunting, gripping, colourful and soul destroying all at the same time.

Even as it gets a little repetitive towards the end, it is all part of the slow degeneration of mind, body, house, village, life, with no witness but himself, the last inhabitant. Another 5 star read for me.

The author Julio Llamazares, was born in the now vanished town of Vegémian, which he left at the age of 12 to go to a boarding school in Madrid.  He is one of Europe’s most celebrated writers. Hundreds of these villages have disappeared in recent decades as their inhabitants leave for the cities.

Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide tells a similar story, only she traverses the entire life of her female protagonist Conxa, while Llamazares focuses on the end and on one who refused to leave.

The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

CIMG6788Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his autobiographical notes being smuggled out of Cuba to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.

He spent most of his childhood close to a woman who insisted he call her Mama, despite the presence of his own mother Maria del Pilar.

 

Imagine

how he must feel in that other home

CIMG6789where he learns the words

of verses, plays, sermons, sonnets

now he’s a parrot, not a poodle

he listens, listens, listens

repeats every sound he hears

from every book in his godmother’s library

Though he wasn’t formally educated, he had a gift for language and poetry and despite the severe punishments he endured for continuing to express joy and suffering through his words.

The other day he recited words so completely new

that I understood the verse

was his own

not borrowed, memorised,

begged from the godmother’s books

Soaring

he said

Spirit

he whispered

CIMG6790Imprisoned

he murmured

and then he went on

I only caught a  few fragments

of his rhyme of delight,

something about a golden beak

something about singing

and wishes

and hope

The woman who kept him initially allowed his mother and any unborn children to buy their freedom and promised Juan freedom on her death. It was a promise rescinded by those still living after the woman’s death, though his mother continued to try to purchase his freedom without result.

Don’t cry, my other mother, the real one, whispers

this is the end

of your sadness

now you are free!

But I am not

it’s a trick

one swift trip

to the house

of my godparents

and then to La Marquesa

instead of the long-promised

freedom.

The Marquesa is a bitter, cruel woman who even when inflicting the most grotesque punishment on Juan, still finds reason to blame him for her own suffering.

Some people can never be satisfied.

The poet-boy for instance.

Nothing is ever enough for him.

marquesaI have to tell the overseers to teach

the same lessons

over and over

locking his ankles in the stocks

tying him to the cross like Jesus.

Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground

face down, mouth down

so he cannot speak

except to count his own lashes out loud.

And even when this is done nine days in a row

still he bleeds and weeps,

trying to show me

that he has won

he has triumphed once again

he has proven that he can still

make me sad.

Evil child.

To find out what happens, read this wonderful story of poems, a beautiful collection and tribute to a life of an exceptional poet.

Juan Francisco Manzano didn’t stop producing spontaneous poems until very late in his life, after being arrested for trying to stir up a slave rebellion through his poetry and spending a year in prison. That experience silenced his voice forever.

His work is astonishing, bold, thought-provoking, intelligent and lengthy. Once you begin reading it you can’t stop and I can see why both his work and his story haunted Margarita Engle for so long. That she has been able to condense his experience and thoughts into this humble volume is a gift to readers young and old.

To read the English translation of some of Juan Francisco’s original work, click on this link or the image below:

Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated;
Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D.
With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself

Manzano

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet who has published a number of books for young readers in free verse and prose poetry. She chooses interesting subjects that make me want to read everything she has written, they are an introduction to explore further the subjects she introduces. The titles alone are seductive.

The artwork in all her books is fantastic, this work illustrated beautifully by Sean Qualls.

I have read and reviewed The Wild Book, based on the life of the author’s grandmother who struggled with dyslexia, and she has other tempting titles such as:

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras tr. Frank Wynne (Spanish, Argentina)

KamcahtkaKamchatka is a novel by the Argentinian writer Marcelo Figueras set in 1976, one year during a disturbing era of Argentinian history under military dictatorship, often referred to as The Dark Ages, a time when speaking out against the establishment gave rise to a terrible number of “Disappeared”.

Ordinary people vanished without trace, neither arrested nor imprisoned, there was no record of their detainment, they simply disappeared, believed to have been disposed off.

In an interview with Stu a huge reader of translated fiction who reviews at Winston’s Dad, Marcelo Figueras said this about his own experience as a child growing up in those years, words that are clearly an inspiration for the novel he has written:

“On the one hand, I was the typical boy on the verge of adolescence: shy, introspective, living in a bubble made of books ,music, comics, TV and movies. I played Risk a lot. I watched The Invaders. I enjoyed Houdini, the movie with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, but rejected its sad, sad ending. I fell in love every day. I danced alone.

But on the other hand, I lived in fear. I knew nothing about what was happening, my family had always been apolitical. In spite of that, I sensed something awful was going on: it was everywhere, even in the air, atoms of fear mixed with oxygen and nitrogen.

That was one of the main ingredients of the military Junta’s perversity: they tried to keep the appearance of normality, Buenos Aires’ streets were calm and orderly (and filled with policemen), as if nothing out of the ordinary was really happening. But people were being kidnapped in the dark, locked in dungeons, tortured and killed, and their bodies hidden in massive, anonymous graves or dropped into the sea. So something wicked was indeed happening. And my nose picked it up somehow.”

The author goes on to say that the subject has been written about by many authors and in his opinion many of those stories follow a similar trajectory of a romantic young man or woman, their involvement in politics, a kidnapping occurs, torture, death and the law courts follow.

He wanted to do something different, to write about what those who were not kidnapped endured, a different horror. By making a 10-year-old the narrator of his novel, he puts the reader right into this fearful and confusing situation of sensing being in danger and yet understanding nothing about where that fear is coming from.

HoudiniEarly on in the novel, our narrator and his younger brother, whom he affectionately refers to as The Midget, are pulled out of school abruptly by their mother and they go on what she describes as a holiday, to stay in a safe house.

The boys are told to choose a name for themselves, to change their identity and after finding a book about Harry Houdini on top of a cupboard, our narrator calls himself Harry and decides he wants to become an escape artist, something he goes to great lengths to tell us is very different to being a magician.

“Since the uncertainties of the present weighed heavily on me, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about my future. The idea of becoming an escape artist struck me as clearly as a vision: once the notion was firmly planted in my brain, all my worries  disappeared. Now I had a plan, something that would, in the near future, make it possible to tie up the loose ends of my circumstances. I imagined that Houdini himself had done much the same thing. ”

Risk Map

The ‘Risk’ Map of the World

The stay doesn’t feel like a holiday to Harry, however he passes his time doing the things he enjoys, playing Risk with his father, a post colonial game of strategy to take over the territories of the world. Harry wants to conquer but he never does, his father believes it is important he learns how to win through continual practice, not to have victory handed to him.

Finally the match occurs where Harry begins to win, he pushes his father back, gaining all but one last territory, that last bastion of strength, Kamchatka. He fails to take it and from that moment on his fortune turns.  Kamchatka is this place on the map that few have heard of, but it contains a hidden strength and it is both a figurative place Harry will return to in later years and a physical landscape of extraordinary elements that he will also visit.

Our Harry is very curious and intelligent and the book is structured into sections like lessons from a day at school. In each of these parts he reflects on philosophical ideas, covering subjects the book is divided into, biology, geography, language, astronomy and history. These reflections were one of the magical parts of the book for me, I recognise that beautiful curiosity of a young mind, trying to make connections between what he knows and what he thinks might be, growing his brain on the page.

“Sometimes I think that everything you need to know about life can be found in geography books. The result of centuries of research, they tell us how the Earth was formed…They tell us about how successive geological strata of the planet were laid down, one on top of the other, creating a modem which applies to everything in life. (In a sense too, we are made up of successive layers. Our current incarnation is laid down over a previous one, but sometimes its cracks and eruptions bring to the surface elements we thought long buried.)”

Most of the narrative takes place in this suburban exile for the period that the two boys are with their parents, during that time they invite their Grandmother to visit, a formidable woman who doesn’t get on with her daughter and whom The Midget plays a deathly trick on.

There is  a swimming pool and often the boys find a dead toad floating within it, so they devise a method for the toad to escape, hoping to improve the genetic selection of toads, as only the intelligent will figure out how to escape. It is a child’s game invested with hope.

And Kamchatka?

“The last thing Papa said to me, the last word from his lips, was ‘Kamchatka’.”

I thought this book was incredibly well told, the voice of the child narrator was so authentic and believable, his curiosity, frustrations and fear penetrate the pages and make the reader feel it all. You can’t help but read the book with a certain amount of tension, not knowing what the outcome will be. I was left wanting to read a sequel, to know how Harry coped and lived in the teenage years that would have followed, when life must have been so different to everything he and The Midget had known up until then.

A 5 star read for me, highly recommended.

The book was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011.

A Note on That Place Called Kamchatka

Kamchatka landscapeIn the easternmost region of Russia, eight time zones from Moscow, closer to Japan than most of Russia lies the region and peninsula of Kamchatka. A land of legends and a kingdom of bears. The region is stunning to look at and sees all the elements come together, snow topped hills, ramblings brooks, luscious greenery and volcanic vapours, yes there are frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

I realised some days after finishing this wonderful book that I knew about Kamchatka because some months ago my son made me go with him to see a stunning documentary at the cinema called ‘Terre des Ours’ which is set right on the heart of Kamchatka, a territory that is the home of brown bears, who only come out of hibernation for 3 months of the year and during that time they leave the snow topped mountainous regions and traverse the lava fields and go down to the river and lakes which are heaving with salmon. They must eat enough to get them through the next hibernation and the female bears have an even more challenging role as they have to catch enough for themselves and their offspring, while fending off the attentions of the lone male bears.

Below is a one minute trailer that show you a little of that magical world. The film is brilliant, sadly I don’t think it is available in English, the voice over is done by Marion Cotillard. But do watch this snippet, its magic.

Wake by Elizabeth Knox

Vinter's LuckElizabeth Knox is a well-known New Zealand author whom I first discovered via a book club I belonged to in London. We read her astonishing novel The Vintner’s Luck which provoked an animated discussion as opinions were so diverse, all agreeing we had not read anything like it before.

Since then she has published a fascinating pair of young adult novels The Dreamhunter Duet, a sequel to The Vinter’s Luck and another YA (young adult) book Mortal Fire, which I plan to read this year.

I met Elizabeth Knox when she and three other New Zealand writers visited France as part of Les Belles étrangères cultural visit some years ago and so I was delighted when she asked me a few questions recently about our local library here in Aix-en-Provence, a location that may feature in one of her upcoming adventures. So thanks Elizabeth for the copy of Wake, it certainly had me reading outside my comfort zone, but within a very familiar landscape.

Wake will be published in the UK by Little, Brown Book Group in March 2015. The book covers below show the New Zealand version on the left, illustrated by Dylan Horrocks and the pending UK version.

wake ukWake Elizabeth KnoxA sleepy, waterfront town in the South Island of New Zealand with a Kākāpō reserve is the setting for this macabre, sci-fi adventure, revolving around 14 survivors of an invisible, destructive and still hungry presence that has created  a kind of net outside which the survivors can not move without dire consequences.

When the presence arrives, as it does in the opening pages, death, destruction and bizarre, disgusting action follows, the kind of thing that might normally turn this reader off, however I have faith in the author, an adept mistress of storytelling, so I persevere, despite the feeling of dread as the initial pages are littered with zombie-like scenes, the kind I would never wish to see on celluloid.

The novel is narrated from the point of view of the survivors, as they learn how to stay within the threatening environment without succumbing to this invisible presence. They try to understand what has happened and what is continuing to happen, how to survive and overcome the insidious presence and whether they can trust each other.

It reads almost like a reality television show of survival, but in reverse because they remain in the town they know, only now they are its only inhabitants having no contact with the outside world and a sense of pending doom as their isolation pushes each of them toward their own mental limits.

We get to know the individual characters, thrown together seemingly at random, how their strengths and weaknesses both help and hinder the group and how as a team they attempt to survive.

With so many characters and little if any connection between them before this catastrophe, the story is as much an unveiling of character, as it is a journey toward its own conclusion. I found it a compelling read, once I got past the initial horror and enjoyed the mystery of trying to predict which characters were going to contribute to the final outcome.

There is a strong sense of place and whether it was the writing or the familiarity and ease at which I could imagine the surroundings, I found it a very visual read, I could see faces and hear the dialogue as I read almost as if I was indeed watching that version, I said I wouldn’t. Well, maybe with a cushion to hand when the creepy music starts.

It is a novel that keeps you thinking and guessing, trying to understand what the force portrayed actually is and whether it has a weak or vulnerable spot. It is made all the more complex by being invisible and the reader having no insight into what is happening in the world outside the devastated zone.

And the flightless, endangered Kākāpō? A metaphor of survival perhaps?

The Kākāpō, a large, flightless nocturnal bird, critically endangered, only 126 living as of March 2014

The Kākāpō, a large, flightless nocturnal bird, native to New Zealand, critically endangered, only 126 living as of March 2014

When did you last read a book that was outside your regular comfort zone? Did it surprise you?

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius tr. Jamie Bulloch

Portrait of the MotherThis 117 page long single sentence in a novella, is the third and final book in the Peirene Press series entitled Female Voices: Inner Realities.

If you missed the first two, you can read my reviews here:

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell)

In my previous review I mention the enticing page at the beginning of all Peirene books where publisher Mieke Ziervogel shares what drew her to choosing this book for translation into English.

Here is a glimpse at what she says about this book:

Portrait 2

The book is set in Rome in 1943 when Italy and Germany remain allies during the second world war. The narrative takes place during an afternoon stroll as our young woman on the brink of becoming a mother is walking towards a Lutheran church where she will attend a classical concert.

Eight months pregnant, she is the young wife of a German solider and had been waiting for him to join her in Rome; after briefly reuniting, one day later he is redeployed to Tunisia. Alone again so soon, she walks to the Bach concert thinking about how her life has changed now as a married woman and how distant she feels from everything around her. She recalls recent memories of the short time spent with her husband wondering whether he will return to her safely or not.

Rome 1943Being outside her own country, without her husband and not yet active in her role as mother, it is as if she becomes more acutely aware of who she is, there is little to distract her and she often prefers to keep to herself.

Even the friendship that naturally developed with her room-mate Ilse, she keeps in check, worrying about the implications of being associated with those whose views are more vociferous than her own, she who wishes for a quiet life.

she worried about Ilse, who rarely had a good word to say about authority that was

invested by God, about Hitler and Mussolini, only a few days ago she had said Hitler always demanded that people show no weakness, but human beings were not made like that, and Mussolini always demanded that people had to hate the enemy, but the Italians that she knew were not fond of hatred, why should they hate the English and the Americans,

fortunately Ilse had broken off at this point, perhaps out of consideration for her, because she,

the younger woman, who was always silent when national and political questions were discussed, had just for a second wondered why it was necessary to hate the British and Americans, and in the same instant this forbidden thought made her feel guilty, confused and horrified,

She is not despondent for she has a deep faith and whenever her thoughts turn towards herself she recalls that war is God’s most difficult trial, lamenting:

“God, who is love, delivers this all to us, that it may benefit us in the end,

for it was un-Christian to shed tears for one’s own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless”

Her thoughts enable the reader to understand her reluctance to do anything that might jeopardise what slim chance she may have at a normal life, she dislikes that by virtue of being foreign she already stands out, the opposite of what might give her peace of mind.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a spellbinding portrayal of one woman’s internal conversation, her method of coping with the strangeness of her environment, talking herself into maintaining a calm state of mind, rationalising why they have found themselves in this situation. Though it is a trial for her, it is not enough to prevent her dreaming of the life she wishes they were living, something that seems increasingly like a fantasy, as the probability of her husband’s return grows slimmer as each day passes.

Poignant in its simplicity, expressing that universal feminine desire for love in a safe, nurturing environment.