Ru by Kim Thúy

RuReading Ru by Kim Thúy is like taking a long overland journey while looking up regularly to witness that which passes in front of our eyes. Sometimes the view is stunning, sometimes it elicits sadness, it can be moving, nostalgic, perhaps an odour transports us back to a scene from childhood, a person we see reminds us of someone we once knew.

Reading it in French imbues it with a drifting, lyrical resonance, sometimes I drifted off as the excess of descriptive words were beyond my reach and I was too lazy to look them up, not wanting to interrupt the flow. Until the next day, when I would happily read with the two dictionaries beside me and remember how much more fulfilling it is to venture further into unknown linguistic territory, enriching one’s vocabulary in another language.

blue dragon tattooMost of the pages read like short vignettes, experiences that provoke a memory, the man at the petrol station who sees a scar and recognises a childhood vaccination from Vietnam, his own hidden beneath a tattoo of a blue dragon, he shares a few memories, he touches her scar and places her finger in the middle of the blue dragon.

Reflections of times gone by, the journey of a woman with her family leaving the south of Vietnam for Canada via a refugee camp in Malaysia, she is a woman connected with another culture and the past, who intends to and does embrace ‘the dream’, whose own children will grow up in that modern culture with different references. Uprooted and yet connected at the same time.

A short but powerful read, that is incredibly moving without being sentimental. A rare and authentic talent, Kim Thúy channels her experience into this fictional tribute, which makes me remember reading Vadney Ratner’s In The Shadow of the Banyan, a tribute to another author’s human experience, struggle and survival despite the horrors lived through.

Ru in French means a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or liquid. In Vietnamese, Ru is a lullaby.

Also Reviewed By

Nancy at Ifsofactodotme 

Jennifer D at LiteralLife

I read the book in French, but it is available in English, under the same title.

Ru English

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

“I am a quiet lady, but my imagination is wild and busy.” Isobelle Ouzman

Livia and TsengFrom one island to another, having left the four holidaymakers from elsewhere on Little Lost Island in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August, I find a not so little, but lost islander in Mayumi, a 41-year-old librarian and resident of another New England island.

With a demanding 4-year-old daughter who has claimed a place in the marital bed, an emotionally and physically distant husband and finding solace between the pages of the books she reads, Mayumi’s life seems to lack something she isn’t aware of, until someone arrives at the library counter to ignite it.

She develops a fixation on a 17-year-old boy, seducing him and slotting him timetable-like in her already routine, controlled life, as if forbidden love is just another aspect of a carefully planned existence, something that be contained.

In addition, she can’t help but allow a friendship to develop with the boy’s mother, her equal desire for friendship and understanding crossing neurotic wires that seem destined to create an emotional explosion.

Publisher, Europa Editions describe the book as:

“With echoes of  The Giant’s House and shot through with literary references, the debut novel by Asian-American poet Jennifer Tseng is a book that leaves a lasting impression.”

and Kirkus Reviews:

Tseng explores time and place, isolation and connection, and veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid.”

while the author herself said:

“I love the premise of someone in a mundane setting, then a stranger walks in, and everything changes.”

Jennifer Tseng

Jennifer Tseng

It was a strange read for me and while many authors succeed in bringing the reader inside a perspective that might be counter-intuitive to their own instinct, it felt as though I remained on the outside of this narrative, never able to crossover into the world Muyumi inhabits, through her narcissistic obsession.

I haven’t read The Giant’s House, although reading the blurb of it I can see why comparisons might be made.

orhan-pamuk-the-museum-of-innocenceThe only reading experience I can compare this too is Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which is a very long treatise on the experience of obsession, it is so long that you can’t help but experience the tedium of an unrelenting obsession.

Tseng’s exploration is unique by virtue of it being a female obsession, confusing the roles of mother, lover, friend and wife.

It is a reminder that in the quietest of environments, the imagination is actively at work and you never know when inspiration or obsession might alight.

I leave you with a quote from the book, where Mayumi is feeling frustrated by the pending departure of the young man for a couple of weeks over the summer:

“You know I didn’t come here to mix with your sort. If anything I came here to escape such excitements.”

What had in it the seed of a compliment came off sounding like a snub. He drew back slightly as if I had just hit him.

“What I meant to say,” I persisted, determined to salvage the moment and bolster his confidence, “is that this is a highly unusual circumstance. I’ve lead a very sheltered life, sheltered from good as much as from bad. I’ve minded my own business. I never sought thrills. I’ve been content to avoid the company of youth and beauty. Before you, I had no desire.”

“With all due respect, May, I find it hard to believe,” he finished in iambic pentameter, “that a woman with your brain and your appetite came halfway across the world in search of nothing.”

He was well-mannered yet restless; his eyes studied me as though I were a page in a book. I had the sense of being one among many, of being read intensely but fleetingly by a reader who would soon turn the page.

In addition to being a poet and fiction writer, the author Jennifer Tseng is a librarian on Martha’s Vineyard, a New England island.

Pumpkin Island Maine

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

Enchanted August, A Novel by Brenda Bowen

Enchanted AugustNot only are Elizabeth von Arnim’s works experiencing a surge in popularity, with The Enchanted April being republished as a Penguin Classic this month, but her 90-year-old novel has spawned a work of fan fiction in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

Bowen takes four same named characters and weaves a contemporary 21st century tale set on an island in Maine. A huge fan of first the movie and then the book, Bowen transposes von Arnim’s idea into the modern world and reinvents its magic.

Two mothers Lottie and Rose see the same advertisement posted on the noticeboard of the over-zealous Brooklyn preschool their children attend:

Hopewell Cottage

Little Lost Island, Maine.

Old, pretty cottage

to rent on a small island

Springwater, blueberries, sea glass.

August.

They dCIMG7226ecide to rent it and find two others to join them to reduce the cost, Caroline Dester, a celebrity who wishes to hide from the world following a recent public humiliation and Beverly Fisher, the somewhat grumpy and initially reclusive, older character, grieving after a heartbreaking loss and seeking solitude in the company of strangers.

Lottie and Rose reflect on their unhappy marriages; distance and absence incline them towards remembering better days in the early years and in a surge of optimism brought on by the island ambiance, Lottie invites her husband without consulting the others, while Rose procrastinates at Lottie’s suggestion that she do the same.

These four unlikely holidaymakers attempt to navigate living together for one month and discover an ironic comfort and lack of inhibition brought about in the company of strangers. Wounds begin to heal, the island changes their routine and shifts their perspectives as they discover the life-changing effect of a month-long summer holiday on a small island where there is little to do but relax and unwind.

Enchanted August is a pleasant read, even when aware of the plot as it unfolds; discovering how Bowen chooses to represent her characters and their various dilemmas is part of the joy in reading it.

lobsterbake

Traditional Maine Lobster Bake

It is very much an American version with its characters and setting just as von Arnim’s is essentially English even if set in Italy. One of the intriguing local aspects was the age-old lobster bake, something of a communal island lobster, clam, vegetable, seaweed, open fire culinary tradition that brings everyone together.

The island didn’t succeed in invoking quite the same charm and magic as Portofino did for me in the orignal classic, an idyll almost impossible to replicate, however it perhaps offers for many, a more realistic or attainable allure, the idea that one doesn’t have to travel so far to find a simple magic that can transform perspectives and lives.

An entertaining summer read, evocative of the charm, simplicity and transformative powers of a small island holiday.

Further Reading

Review of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Review of Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

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

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé

I came across Maryse Condé recently via the Man Booker International Prize 2015 list of 10 nominated authors. She is third from the left in the picture below.

FinalistsNot a book prize as such, it is an award conferred on an author who has a significant body of published work, regardless of the original language it was written in, though some of it must have been translated into English.

It is from such long lists the gems are found I say, and having read about all 10 thanks to this excellent Interview: The Finalists Speak in The Guardian, I spotted my potential winner immediately. A winner in the sense that I intend to read a few of their books. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh was the only author I’d read on this list.

One writer jumped out at me straight away and I pursued her works with little consideration for the pending award result. Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize, the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai did, a writer whose books intellectuals rave about, but who I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.

Tales Maryse CondéSo I took Maryse Condé’s advice and started by reading this slim volume of essays of her childhood in Guadeloupe, Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

She takes us right back to the beginning, to the day of her birth. Being the youngest of 8 children, the family possessed an extended collective memory and she was fortunate to have heard the story of her birth from other perspectives.

Her appearance was both a source of pride and shame for her then 43-year-old mother and 63-year-old father, proud that her body remained robust enough to support the creation of a child and shame that it publicly displayed evidence of their continued indulgence in carnal pleasures.

The first chapter Family Portrait describes her parents relationship with France:

“For them France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It was truly the Mother Country and Paris, the City of Light that lit up their lives.”

World War II wasn’t considered dark on account of all the dreadful atrocities that occurred:

“but because for seven long years they were deprived of what meant the most to them, their trips to France.”

She recounts an anecdote of a waiter in a café complimenting the family on their excellent French pronunciation, to which her parents felt indignant, considering themselves just as French as a Parisian waiter, even more so because of their higher education, manners and regular travel.

Not understanding why it mattered so, she asked her brother Sandrino:

“Could he explain my parents behaviour?” to which he replied “Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals,”

a mysterious word that would rest a long time in her consciousness until she came to understand it. She realised that not only did they take no pride in their African ancestry, they knew nothing of it, however:

“They believed they were the most brilliant and most intelligent people alive, proof positive of the progress achieved by the Black Race.”

Maryse Condé

In their neighbourhood all the mothers in their circle held a profession and with it contempt for the manual work they believed had been the undoing of their own mothers. They employed a servant who, though she raised 6 children of her own would begin work at 5am to take care of the needs of the family.

We meet her best friend Yvelise, two girls who did everything together, their friendship almost destroyed by the unfortunate intervention of one of her teachers, causing a temporary rupture.

Maryse’s mother Jeanne, knew the life she didn’t wish to lead, nor her children either, she had succeeded in breaking the cycle endured by her mother and grandmother and a good education was key (and perhaps being married to a successful and much older husband). Jeanne was a school teacher, revered and feared in equal measure by those around her. Her eldest son Sandrino and her youngest child Maryse the only two children who weren’t afraid to stand up to her, the others too terrified to challenge her.

On her birthday, her favourite pupils recited compliments, gave her roses, her husband bought her jewellery and the day would culminate with a family play, a short piece of theatre written themselves, in her honour.

‘Beneath her flamboyant appearance, I imagine my mother must have been scared of life, that unbridled mare that had treated her mother and grandmother so roughly…Both of them had been abandoned with their “mountain of truth” and their two eyes to cry with.’

10-year-old Maryse asked if she could read one of her compositions for her mother’s birthday.

‘I had no idea what I wanted to write. I merely sensed that a personality such as my mother’s deserved a scribe.’

If a book of essays can reach a crescendo, this is the moment when we reach it. The moment when Maryse learns that not all lessons come from one’s parents and school teachers, some come from life itself and often when we least expect it.

In the chapter School Days , she is at school (lycée) in Paris when her French teacher asks her to present to the class a book from her island. It is a watershed moment.

‘This well intentioned proposition, however, plunged me into a deep quandary. It was, let us recall, the early fifties. Literature from the French Caribbean had not yet blossomed. Patrick Chamoiseau lay unformed in his mother’s womb and I had never heard the name Aime Césaire. Which writer from my island could I speak about? I resorted to my usual source: Sandrino.’

Sugar Cane Alley

Sugar Cane Alley

Sandrino introduces her to to a treasure. La Rue Case-Negres (Black Shack Alley) by Joseph Zobel and his hero José Hassan. It was made into an award-winning film titled Sugar Cane Alley.

It was her first introduction to a world no one up until that moment had ever mentioned; a world that highlighted slavery, the slave trade, colonial oppression, the exploitation of man by man and colour prejudice.

‘I was scared to reveal how José and I were worlds apart. In the eyes of this Communist teacher, in the eyes of the entire class, the real Caribbean was the one I was guilty of not knowing.’

These glimpses into the more significant and memorable aspects of childhood that shaped the author Maryse Condé are insightful, engaging and honest. Just as her consciousness is awakened, the vignettes finish and leave the reader desperate to know more.

I had intended to read this volume over time, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop, it is almost like reading a coming-of-age novella and at its conclusion, the writers fiction will begin. For Condé’s first novel Hérémakhonon is about a character raised in Guadeloupe, educated in Paris, who then travels to Africa in search of a recognisable past, just as she did.

‘Veronica has spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and, after a period as a student in Paris, wants to escape that island’s respectable black bourgeoisie, which she regards as secretly afraid of its own inferiority. She travels to an unnamed West African state and, while there, seeks an authentically African past with which she will be able to identify.’

Tales From The Heart is an excellent read and an intriguing introduction to the writer and her influences and will certainly make you want to read more of her work. I am very happy I have these three novels on the shelf to follow-up with only I am missing that debt novel which I really want to read now too! Very highly recommended.

Literary Works of Maryse Condé

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

CIMG7226As soon as I learned that Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April was to be reissued as a Penguin classic, I jumped at the chance to read it. Elizabeth and her German Garden was such an engaging and entertaining read and I recall in the comments of that review so many mentions of The Enchanted April as a must read.

Elizabeth wrote The Enchanted April in a castello (an eleventh-century fortress with Roman foundations overlooking the Ligurian Sea) in Portofino, Italy, in April 1921. She had rented the place to get away from her own (sixteen bedroom) chalet in Switzerland… an extract from the Introduction by Brenda Bowen

Brenda Bowen has written a work of fan fiction, published in June 2015, one that mirrors von Arnim’s work, set in contemporary Brooklyn and Maine featuring four ladies who will rent a cottage (not castle) on Little Lost Island, Maine.

Enchanted August

One to Watch Out For, Fan Fiction

Enchanting indeed, not just the month of April, but all that made this original classic so; the villa San Salvatore (inspired by the Castello Brown pictured below) on the cliffs of Portofino overlooking the sea, the blooming buds and flowers of Spring, four weeks stretched out in front of four unaccompanied women with no social obligations, no cooking, cleaning, nothing to do but enjoy the gardens, the villa, the seascape and one minor challenge, to tolerate each others company.

They are four women who remind me of the semi-autobiographical and coolly calculating character of Elizabeth, in von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden, for though the four women in this novel sought company for this séjour on the Ligurian coast of Italy, it was purely for financial reasons, most certainly not for companionship, the first hint of von Arnim’s well-known and often quoted attitude towards visitors.

Being with strangers, they each hoped to leave that part of themselves that must always meet the expectations of others behind. Mrs Wilkins  from Hampstead was the first to see the advertisement in The Times while visiting her London club.

To Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000,

The Times.

Mrs Wilkins was certain another woman her age was reading the same ad and having a similar response to it, so true to her nature (though not typical of society’s expectation of a response) she seized the initiative suggesting they rented the place together.

Her initial reluctance overcome, once the two women realised it was possible, they needed only a solution to the expense which Mrs Wilkins solved by suggesting they place another ad to attract another two like-minded female souls, thus we are introduced to the beautiful, ever charming even when she is trying not to be, Lady Caroline Dester and the somewhat disagreeable and much older Mrs Fisher.

Once ensconced in their lodgings, the four women interact and are given a well-portrayed and at times humorous glimpse into their individual characters, made all the more interesting by the fact that these women were most unlikely to have ever encountered each other within their existing social circles.

Enchanted April

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are pleased to have escaped their husbands, though they each harbour an underlying sadness for how things were when they were newly married. They are not aged, in their thirties, they have more the air of self-accepting middle age. However, they hadn’t reckoned on the effect of a stay at San Salvatore.

Lady Caroline just wants to be left alone, unmarried and disinclined, she detests the attention her beauty and natural charm attract. The formidable Mrs Fisher appears malcontent for no more reason than that she’s been on Earth at least twice as long as the younger women, having lost what youthful exuberance she may ever have had long ago.

‘Mrs Fisher doesn’t seem happy – not visibly anyhow,’ said Mrs Arbuthnot, smiling.

‘She’ll begin soon, you’ll see.’

Mrs Arbuthnot said she didn’t believe that after a certain age people began anything.

Mrs Wilkins said she was sure no one, however old and tough could resist the effects of perfect beauty. Before many days, perhaps only hours, they would see Mrs Fisher bursting out into every kind of exuberance. ‘I’m quite sure, said Mrs Wilkins, ‘that we’ve got to heaven, and once Mrs Fisher realises that’s where she is, she’s bound to be different. You’ll see. She’ll leave off being ossified, and go all soft and able to stretch, and we shall get quite – why, I shouldn’t be surprised if we get quite fond of her.’

Things are about to change, as the castle San Salvatore, though solid and immovable, works its way into their psyches and each will fall under the spell of the charming fortress and its healing environment over the course of their four-week stay.

I thought The Enchanted April a wonderful, evocative read and witty insight into its very English characters, enjoyable for its sense of place and the lush season it evokes, von Arnim’s natural, subtle humour that she never ceases to inject into her narratives, in this novel there is no trace of the slight cynicism of her earlier work; she has allowed her four women to indulge this fantasy through to its natural conclusion.

And oh how fulfilling that can be for the reader, I know this little stretch of Italy and it invoked pleasant memories and incited future dreams of a possible return – with three women ‘bien sûr’!

Countess Elizabeth von Arnim

Born Mary (May) Annette Beauchamp in 1866, Elizabeth von Arnim was Australian by birth, English by upbringing, German and English through marriage, Swiss and French by choice and finally American by emigration. She published 21 books in her lifetime,  books where the central female character(s) were often witty and unreserved, possessing an unusual outlook on life. A number of them, including The Enchanted April were made into films.

An appearance of the novel Elizabeth and her German Garden in a recent episode of Downton Abbey, sparked renewed interest in the works of the author. That novel was so popular when first published, it was reprinted 21 times within a year of publication.

She was the cousin and contemporary of the New Zealand/English writer Katherine Mansfield. She died in Charleston, South Carolina in 1941.

KM logoElizabeth von Arnim Conference – In an extraordinary coincidence that I just discovered, the Katherine Mansfield Society is to hold an Elizabeth von Arnim Conference, at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge on Sept 13th 2015!

My review of Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August.

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

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 Winner

British author Ali Smith has won the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction with her sixth novel How to Be Both.

“Ancient and modern meet and speak to each other in this tender, brilliant and witty novel of grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.”

Shami Chakrabarti, Chair of Judges

Ali Smith

 

How to Be Both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

The winning title was also chosen by the Shadow Jury, who made their announcement yesterday, see some of their reviews here:

How To Be Both

– reviewed by Eric at The Lonesome Reader

– reviewed by Naomi at The Writes of Women

lbaileyslogo