Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

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Claudine Married (Book 3) by Colette tr. Antonia White #WITMonth

The impulsive Claudine, thinking a marriage of her own making and choice (not one chosen by her father or suggested by a man who had feelings for her that weren’t reciprocated) embarks on her marital journey which begins with fifteen months of a vagabond life, travelling to the annual opera Festival de Bayreuth, in Germany, to Switzerland and the south of France.

It might have been more enjoyable had she not had to endure the many introductions to numerous of her husband’s friends and their families, whom he made himself most agreeable to and put himself out for, something the young bride was unable to fully appreciate.

“As he explains, with impudent charm, it is not worthwhile doing violence to one’s nature to please one’s real friends, since one’s sure of them anyway…”

Claudine demands mercy and a fixed abode and thus this book of her marriage begins when they are reinstalled back in Paris, however Claudine still feels as though something is lacking. Before they returned she requested they visit Montigny and while unable to visit her childhood home (now rented), they visit the school and for a brief period she reconnects to something of her former self and notes one of the differences between herself and her husband in so doing.

“How willingly I look back over this recent past and dwell on it! But my husband lives in the future. This paradoxical man who is devoured by the terror of growing old, who studies himself minutely in looking-glasses and desperately notes every tiny wrinkle in the network at the corner of his eyes, is uneasy in the present and feverishly hurries Today on Tomorrow. I myself linger in the past, even if that past be only Yesterday, and I look back almost always with regret.”

This living in the past causes her even to forget that she now lives in this new apartment, coming out of her daydream, she readies herself to return home (to her father) only to realise she no longer lives there and ponders where her home really is.

“To go home! But where? Isn’t this my home, then? No, no, it isn’t, and that’s the whole source of my trouble. To go home? Where? Definitely not to Rue Jacob, where Papa has piled up mountains of papers on my bed. Not to Montigny, because neither the beloved house…not the School…”

Her husband decides to re-initiate his “at-home day”, a day when society friends can call to visit, Claudine isn’t too enthusiastic, but agrees as long as she doesn’t have to be the hostess. It is here she will meet Rézi, a woman she is both charmed by and fearful of, one whom she becomes attached to, visiting her daily, encouraged by her husband.

“Rézi… Her whole person gives off a scent of fern and iris, a respectable artless, rustic smell I find surprising and enchanting by contrast..”

Having achieved his objective in coming to Paris, to find his daughter a suitor, Claudine’s father announces he’s had enough of Paris and is returning to Montigny, and taking her cat Fanchette with him.

Claudine is drawn into the intoxicating intimacy of her friendship with Rézi, albeit somewhat bothered by the overly attentive encouragement of her husband.

“The violence of Rézi’s attraction, the vanity of my resistance, the sense that I am behaving ridiculously, all urge me to get it over and done with; to intoxicate myself with her till I have exhausted her charm. But, I resist! And I despise myself for my own stubborn obstinacy.”

Their relationship plays itself out, up to the denouement, when Claudine seeking refuge decides to return to Montigny, to the safety of her childhood home, the woods, her animals whose loyalty she is assured of, and the affection of the maid Mélie and her humble, absent-minded father.

She writes a letter to her husband, the last pages arrive and we are on to the next book, in English entitled Claudine and Annie, in French Claudine s’en va, meaning Claudine Leaves!

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Colette

Book 1 – Claudine at School

Book 2 – Claudine in Paris

Book 4 – Claudine and Annie (to come)…

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

1947 Migration to Pakistan, wikipedia

There are so many tragic stories surrounding the independence of India and the formation of East and West Pakistan, or the 1947 partition, as it’s often referred to, sadly thousands that will never be told because there is no one left to tell them. It was a moment in history that demonstrated what happens to humanity when fear and panic take hold in the wake of political posturing and it is devastating.

Train to Pakistan was written in 1956, a mere nine years after the British drew a controversial line through India, sending Muslims to the newly named Pakistan and banishing Hindus and Sikhs from that territory.

The author, who died in 2014 at the age of 99, belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in the area that was to become Pakistan, was an outspoken critic of the establishment, intolerant of hypocrisy, who abandoned his studies in law and diplomacy to become a writer. Witness to killings on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, his novel is his reflection of events in that period in history, his frustration with various parties and people in positions of authority and a comment on the individual living in fear.

Khushwant Singh takes the Punjabi farming village of Mano Majra, a small village on the border between India and Pakistan, one of strategic importance to the railway system, and narrates the moment when news of this change arrives and shows how it affects this community.

The trains are symbolic to the story, portenders of what is to come; in the past they have run like clockwork and though they rarely stop, the lives of the villagers is intricately linked to their passing. When the trains become delayed, the rhythm of the village gets out of sync and worse when the trains begin to stop in Mano Majra, life will never be the same.

An educated young man named Iqbal arrives from Delhi, sent by his party to observe the impact of the news.

Well, Babuji,’ began the Muslim. ‘Tell us something. What is happening in the world?
What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?
‘We live in this little village and know nothing,’ the lambardar put in. ‘Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?’

The villagers aren’t convinced by Iqbal’s idealistic view that freedom will follow Independence.

‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?
After a long silence the lambardar (Headman/Revenue collector) answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more land or more buffaloes?
‘No,’ the Muslim said. ‘Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.’

Iqbal and a young local man are wrongly arrested for a murder just as the village arrives as a point where it can longer deny what is happening elsewhere in the country. The town’s Muslims are told to leave and eerily quiet trains begin to arrive in the village, causing consternation and fear. The fate of the two young men becomes a political consideration, justice playing no role. It builds to a terrible climax and will leave them and generations to follow scarred by the experience.

Brilliant, a compelling read, and one that was relatively respectful to all who were affected and to readers with vivid imaginations, who don’t need certain scenes described in overly graphic detail.

Buy a Copy of The Train to Pakistan via Book Depository

Further Reading:

Obituary: Khushwant Singh by Reginald Massey

Partition: 70 years On – Authors consider its legacy and the crises now facing their countries

– featuring Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahmima Anam, Fatima Bhutto, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra and others

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan is the Irish author many of us remember for his debut The Spinning Heart, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 (won that year by Eleanor Catton’s, The Luminaries) and noted for perseverance in pursuing his dream to become a published author – his manuscript was rejected 47 times – before becoming a word of mouth sensation and setting him firmly on the track he knew he was destined for.

Since then he has published The Thing About December and A Slanting of the Sun: Stories and now this riveting novel, which was easily a five star read for me. I liked his debut, but this I loved and did not want to put down.

Similar in style to his earlier work, in which he zooms in on the minutiae of life and thoughts of a character(s) in the wake of a pivotal event, here he focuses on one character, Melody, a thirty-three-year woman, whose marriage has become like a habit she wants to kick, but rather than seek help to heal the cracks, she gives in to an impulse and finds herself pregnant to her 17-year-old private student, Martin Toppy, from a Traveller community.

Courageously, Ryan assumes the first person narrative voice of a pregnant woman, the first chapter labelled week twelve, finishing with Post-partum, though this is not a woman obsessed with what is going on inside her body, it’s a woman in the throes of needing to build nest.  Alone with her thoughts, she thinks back over how she came to be where she is now, interrupted often by memories of her best friend Breedie.

“I’d look at Breedie’s long bare arms, and long legs, and I’d feel a fizzing mixture of admiration and love and terrible envy, that she could make my mother smile and wish she had a daughter like a swan.”

Into this isolation comes another Traveller, partially rejected by her family and community, whom Melody befriends and becomes attached to, picking up her teaching with Mary, where she left off with Martin. Here’s their encounter when they first meet:

You can come into town with me now, if you want.

I can’t. There’d be murder. I’m been watched ever single second.

Why did your sisters leave you out?

I’m a shame to the family.

And she told me a story, and I listened, and I didn’t interrupt her once. Her name is Mary Crothery, and she’s nineteen years old.

The language, their way of speaking, the dialogue is raw, visceral and puts the reader right inside the story, it easily evokes a sense of place, you can sense the attitude of the characters around Melody as soon as they rap their knuckles on the door. Mostly they’re angry, except her father, he’s sad and in fear of disappointing him further, Melody stays away from where she’d be most welcome.

“Thinking now about the way I thought about things then, about how I let my mother’s anger towards him seep into me, I feel a desperate need to apologise, to mitigate the hurt I must have caused him as I drew away from him, as I let my perfect love for him be sullied, and eroded, and disintegrated, by the coldness of a woman I didn’t even really like, but whom I wanted more than anything to be like.”

The weeks pass leading to a crisis point as Melody’s life and that of the Traveller community intersects, highlighting family grudges, betrayals, their battles for redemption and overcoming guilt.

Irish Travellers

It is interesting that Donal Ryan chose to highlight characters from within the Irish Traveller community, as 2017 was a significant year in terms of identity for them. There are estimated to be between 29,000 – 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, representing 0.6% of the population. Recent DNA research has proven they are as genetically different from the settled Irish as they are from the Spanish and that this difference may have emerged up to 12 generations ago, as far back as 1657.

Irish Travellers, sometimes pejoratively referred to as tinkers or gypsies are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group who maintain a set of traditions, who after years of lobbying, finally gained recognition of their ethnic status from the government. It is seen as a momentous victory for the thousands of Traveller children who have long suffered from  exclusion and discrimination.

It’s an engaging story, beautifully rendered and while it doesn’t promise to address all the issues it raises, it does what for me the best novels do, puts the readers in the shoes of another in an attempt to see things from multiple perspectives.

Highly Recommended!

Further Reading

Article in Irish Times, Travellers as ‘genetically different’ from settled Irish as Spanish

Article in Irish Times, Historic Recognition of Ethnic Status for Irish Travellers

Buy a Copy of All We Shall Know via Book Depository

The Mountain In My Shoe by Louise Beech

Louise Beech is a unique author who I feel like I have a personal connection with, after the incredible experience of reading her debut novel How To Be Brave in October 2016, which for me included communicating with her as I endured a hellish experience on the 9th floor of Timone Hospital in Marseille. Twitter hashtags truly can bring incredible people into your lives at pivotal moments, both the living and those that have passed on. #LouiseBeech

I originally bought her book because it was an intriguing fictional response, written by a mother whose daughter at the age of nine was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes, as my daughter had been. Curious, I read that she had used fiction as a conduit for channelling her experience as a distraught mother and the roller coaster journey the two of them went through during those early months of the diagnosis, as it would change them irreversibly.

What made it all the more appealing was the difficulty they had endured, I’d been exposed to too many “good” stories, examples of where children had so readily adapted to this new routine of four injections a day for life, and gone on to do great things, I wanted to read about the opposite, I wanted to hear from those who had found it tough, those who’d rejected it, fought against it, mothers who’d almost been broken by it, and had found a way through; Louise Beech was that mother for me, she still is; an incredible role model, a fabulous writer, unique storyteller and a woman with a great sense of humour.

It was also the story of her grandfather who had been lost at sea for over 50 days when he was a young man.  Both the diagnosis and the story of the grandfather are true stories, however she used her creativity and imagination to write a novel that blends fact and fiction, taking the reader on an emotionally charged, high sea journey towards healing.

If you haven’t already read How To Be Brave, do read my review (linked) and better still buy the book, it is a courageous story and it coincided with a personal experience I will never forget.

But I digress, for this is a review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe beautifully prefaced by the wonderful Muhammad Ali quote displayed below.

The novel begins with a chapter entitled The Book and from then on each consecutive chapter is an extract from this book, which we learn is something called ‘A Life Book’ and as one of the inserts in the book explains:

Lifebook – Principles and Aims

Every Looked-After Child is entitled to an accurate and chronological account of his or her early life. It should have enduring value and can be given to them when they reach adulthood, or sooner if preferable.

It is a book that social workers and foster carers write notes and memories in, and can place mementos and/or photos of important people in their lives.

In chapter two a woman named Bernadette tells us that the book is missing. It is the day she has finally summoned the courage to leave her husband, she’s spent all day preparing and fretting about it, he is a man who values impeccable timing, expecting others to meet his standards, especially his wife Bernadette. She is waiting for him to walk through the door at 6pm like he does every evening before she intends to leave. Only he is late, more than late, he doesn’t come home at all.

Neither does Conor, the ten-year-old boy she has officially befriended for the past five years, whose Life Book she had hidden on the bookshelf, that document that should be preserved until he comes of age. And much to Bernadette’s horror, the book is missing too.

As the narrative progresses we follow Bernadette and Conor’s foster carer Anne on their journey to try to find Conor, we learn more about him from the pages of his Life Book that unfold between each chapter. It is a sad depiction of the inability to nurture, and the damage caused by those who think they can but are incapable, the yearning created by absence and neglect and the profound ability of unconditional love to heal and bring joy.

It’s a compelling, hair-raising read as we get closer to finding Conor and try to ignore that terrible feeling that somehow grows inside of being a little too late. In that respect, it reads like a psychological thriller as Beech cleverly leads the reader to a few false conclusions before the facts are revealed.

While nothing can match the experience of reading her debut How to Be Brave, The Mountain in My Shoe is equally compelling, a heart-felt read that I loved. Fortunately there is a third novel recently published called Maria in the Moon, I can’t wait to read that one too.

Click here to buy one of Louise Beech’s books at Book Depository

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie #ManBookerPrize

I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.

Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.

Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.

In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:

“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.

We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.

The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):

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

Click here to Purchase a copy of

Home Fire via Book Depository

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Loved it, this is my kind of popular summer read, it brought to mind the recent Alaskan classic I read and enjoyed immensely Two Old Women: An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival by Velma Wallis and another that I didn’t enjoy so much A Man Called Ove.

It’s a story of octogenarian women Hortensia and Marion who are neighbours in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. Marion is a white woman, born there, who has lived through political change, though not learned much from it, rather she has tried to keep as much distance as she possibly can from ever having to confront her deeply embedded, never dealt with ancestral shame.

Hortensia is a black woman, whose parents left Barbados for London, where she grew up and was educated, becoming a successful textile designer, and marrying an Englishman, with whom she moved to Nigeria and eventually (not sure why) to retire in South Africa.

Both women have had similarly successful professional lives, both run their own businesses, Marion as an architect, though the birth of her children brought her independence to an earlier close than Hortensia.

Now they are neighbours, on the same street committee and keep each other in check – they represent to the other things about themselves they would never admit, shame or hurt them, rather they take their bitterness out on each other, assuming the other wasn’t capable of understanding their perspective.

Here Marion contemplates her particular shame:
What Hortensia didn’t seem to understand was that sometimes we have to honour our ancestors and side with them. This meant we justified what was horrible and turned away from what needed scrutiny. This life of ignoring the obvious required a certain amount of stamina. The alternative to this was to set on a path to make rubbish of what had gone before us. This approach – of principles – activism and struggle – required stamina too. All the same, she’d chosen the other one.

While grumpy old Ove was just plain annoying and unpleasant to spend a whole book with, these two are actually good company, they have interesting back stories, that are drip fed throughout the narrative, they’re funny and although they are going to learn something when their lives inevitably come closer than they would have wished for, there’s not that sense of over the top, moral victory, I liked that while they overcome something by the end, they don’t change too much.

 

I picked this book up when it was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 and while it didn’t make the short list, it definitely made my list of authors to continue to watch out for and read.

Yewande Omotoso was also born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria and moved to South Africa where she writes and runs her own architectural practice. This is her second novel. Her debut novel Bom Boy was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize.