Songs From the Violet Café by Fiona Kidman

Dame Fiona Kidman is one of New Zealand’s most prolific and highly acclaimed authors. Her work has recently been brought back to light, published in the UK by Gallic Books.

In 2016, I read her excellent novel on the life of the NZ aviator and Queen of the Skies, Jean Batten, The Infinite Air and later the same year picked up a copy of the historical fiction novel The Captive Wife, a tale of the first European woman to settle in the South Island of New Zealand, a whaler’s wife who underwent a dramatic ordeal, that Kidman imagines between the pages of her compelling novel.

Songs From the Violet Café novel begins and ends with chapters set in 2002, with independent events that take place on the same night, near each other. In Part One, an old boat laden with personal items, private notes and other paraphernalia is set alight and pushed out onto the lake, providing a spectacle for the family and their friends gathered for the occasion.

One puts in a bundle of letters; her sly smile and the nod of appreciation from the other women tell him that they are love letters. Another adds a calendar for what she says was a very bad year, someone else a stained quilt, another some yellowed school books. His wife’s best friend whispers to her son that it’s his last year’s school reports and he need never see them again.

The last Part sees nearly all the characters who worked in the Violet Café during 1963-64 on the same shores of that stretch of water, Lake Rotorua in New Zealand. They have come together again, all these years later, to commemorate the life of their patron, Violet Trench, owner.

In Part Two, it is 1943 and a boat rows across the lake with a woman and a young child. The woman is Violet and she is bringing a boy across to her first employer Hugo, a man whose wife she helped nurse through her last days before death. Now Hugo is married to Ming, a Chinese immigrant who also lost her husband, he has helped her raise her two sons and the one they have together.

‘Tell her,’ said Ming through her son, ‘that children are without price here. They are not for trade. ‘ She took the money Violet had given her earlier, and laid it on the table beside the unwashed plates.
The woman’s hand flew to her mouth. ‘I can’t take him back.’ she said.
The two little boys had thrown their arms around each other, nuzzling with tender blind-eyed butting as they shifted in their sleep.
‘The boy stays,’ Ming said, ‘but we do not buy.’

In Part Three we meet all the girls who will come under Violet’s wing, it’s 1963 and we encounter the girls through their mother’s, beginning with Jessie. About to turn eighteen, she is living in Wellington with her mother, stepfather and half-siblings, it is the day before she will leave her law studies and family behind, boarding a bus for a random northern destination, which happens to be Rotorua. Searching for food she will stumble across the café and be taken in by Violet.

Everything her mother did had a cost. Jessie didn’t know why she hadn’t seen this before. But now she understood in an instant that this was how it had always been, ever since her mother married Jock. If it hadn’t been for her, perhaps her mother might have married better the second time around. Jock, she could see, was the price her mother paid for being alone and having a child, for not always living as a war widow.

We meet Sybil and her daughter Marianne, whom Jessie shares a room with at a boarding house for a while, discovering the strange relationship this pair have, the mother sabotaging her daughter’s attempt to create a stable life for herself. Marianne also works at the café.

We meet Belle, a pastor’s daughter, who is to be married to Wallace. He’s saving for a deposit on their house and he and Belle’s father decide Belle needs a job to contribute to household expenses.

Hal and Wallace went to see the woman who ran the café. The woman was all lip and very impudent in Hal’s opinion, although Wallace rather liked her. I make the rules, she told them, and Belle will obey what I say when she comes to work at the Violet Café; she could worry about their rules when she went home. They waited for her to show them around but she didn’t, just waiting for their answer with a take it or leave it look in her eye.

There’s Ruth and Hester, the daughter she had at forty-six years of age.

A girl of quality, her mother believed. She expected her to go far. Hester would win scholarships and go to university, she too would stay clear-skinned and virginal. Instead, Hester grew more quiet and shy as one year followed another. When she was fifteen her frothy brown hair became mysteriously streaked with grey, as if she was already old.

Part Four are the years they all work in the café, where the lives of these young women under the tutelage of Violet come together, where friendships are forged, romances flourish and temptations indulged. Their relations and futures culminate in one eventful night, which will change the trajectory for nearly all of them, their coming-of-age period reaches a climatic point, from which they each will embark on the adult lives that will claim them.

Nobody called out or said goodnight or goodbye. Inside the café the phone was ringing but nobody answered it.

By Part Six it is 1980 and Jessie is in Phnom Penh working as a foreign correspondent. She has left New Zealand and is based in London, but spends most of time working in conflict zones, travelling from place to place following the scent of a story. She has left her past behind her, but will cross paths with some of those people she knew from the days at the Violet Café, learning more about what happened on that last night. The shadow of Violet still hangs over her and she find herself drawn once more into her realm, under her instruction.

It is an evocative novel, which brings that era of a small lakeside NZ town alive, showing how the young women of the time were almost stifled under the expectations of their mothers, and found a place of respite in the café run by the unorthodox matriarch Violet. For some, it wasn’t enough of a distance to rid themselves of guilt, they would leave, going far from home, far from their cultures, creating new personas to remove all trace of the past, one that despite their attempts, never really left them.

Another of Fiona Kidman’s books has recently been published in the UK, a companion novel which delves deeper into the life of Jessie’s mother Irene, from the time of her becoming a war widow to her marriage to Jock and the lives of her children, spanning the years from 1952 to 2015. You can read a review of it by Susan, over at A Life In Books.

Note: Thank you kindly to Gallic Books for providing a review copy.

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The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain tr. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

CIMG7179Antoine Laurain is the French author of five novels, including The President’s Hat, a novel that has found a popular and loyal following in the US and UK since being translated into English by Gallic Books.

Not serious literature, they’re the kind of books you reach for when you need something uplifting and entertaining. I reached for this one at the end of winter when in the grip of a terrible flu and found it the best medicine of all!

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

Intrigued and incensed in equal measure, as a notebook toting woman myself, I wanted to know more of this story centred around a character whose red notebook, containing handwritten thoughts and random PRIVATE jottings, has fallen into the hands of the curious bookseller, Monsieur Laurent Letellier.

Recognising it as a handbag of quality and not something intended to be thrown out, when Monsieur Letellier comes across the abandoned handbag on a Parisian street early one morning, he picks it up intending to hand it in at the police station, which he almost succeeds in doing, except, you know, French bureaucracy, it will require a one hour wait and he has a shop to open up, so plans to return later. Only later becomes much, much later and the police station is not where he will return it to.

mauve handbagThe bag belongs to Laure, a woman we meet in the opening pages as she clutches her handbag to her detriment, metres from her apartment, only to be shoved against a metal door frame, losing the bag anyway. Without keys, and despite it being 2am, she manages to check into the hotel opposite, promising to pay in the morning, by which time she will have fallen into a coma.

Once the bag comes home with the bookseller, it becomes a major temptation and much of the book is spent on various dilemmas arising as a consequence of his inaction, which in turn provoke memories of past events. The longer it stays with him, the more trouble it causes and the more intrigued he becomes by its owner, despite recognising his chances at redemption grow slimmer as each day passes.

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

One of the items the bookseller discovers is a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by Patrick Modiano which leads him to track down the reclusive author, known to frequent Luxembourg Gardens most mornings. As a bookseller, he knows how rare book signings by this author are, so hopes the author may lead him to the woman.

The Modiano cameo intrigued me, particularly as he’d just won The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, was that the reason to mention him, I wondered? And then I read Helen’s Mad About The Books review of Dora Bruder and found an even better reason for the reference to this esteemed author.

Paris Soir Dora BruderIn Dora Bruder, Modiano tells how in 1988 he stumbled across an ad in the personal columns of the 1941 New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir. The ad had been placed by the parents of 15-year-old Jewish girl Dora Bruder, who had run away from the Catholic boarding school where she’d been living.

It set the author off on an obsessive quest to find out everything he could about Dora Bruder and why during the most dangerous period of the German occupation of Paris, she had run away from those protecting her. But that’s another story and book, so see Helen’s review below for more on that extraordinary tale.

The Red Notebook has little of the hardship and tragedy of Dora Bruder, it reads more like a book that could be made into an entertaining romantic comedy, it has all the ingredients, the streets and bookshops of Paris, an artists’ workshop, handbags and their intriguing taboo contents, a jealous girlfriend and a lippy adolescent daughter. Watch this space I say!

Personally, I found it wonderful to discover an author who can do uplifting, feel good stories that push the right buttons for booklovers without becoming sentimental or too romantic. Of the ending isn’t realistic, but it was fun getting there.

If you like a glimpse of local life in Paris, characters who observe bookshelves and mention what others characters are reading, people who write in notebooks, the short form novella and an uplifting story, that could quite likely turn into a beautiful film, then keep an eye out for The Red Notebook.

Further Reading:

Review by Susan of A Life in Books  – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain

Review by Helen of Mad About the BooksDora Bruder, Patrick Modiano – translated into English by Joanna Kilmartin as The Search Warrant

Article by Antoine Laurain – On Patrick Modiano winning the 2014 Nobel Prize

dora Bruder

 

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

Nagasaki by Éric Faye

Thanks to Gallic Books, another recent English translation of a French literary work is being published in 2014, Nagasaki, a slim novella inspired by a newspaper cutting of real life events.

Belgravia Books

Belgravia Bookshop offering Gallic Books and other translations

Shimura Kobo lives alone in a quiet suburban street, by day he works as a meteorologist, he rarely socialises with his colleagues, nor does he see family much, his life causes fewer ripples in Nagasaki than the weather he forecasts for it.

“There comes a time when nothing happens any more. The ribbon of destiny, stretched too wide, has snapped. There’s no more. The shockwave caused by your birth is far, oh so far, behind you now. That is modern life. Your existence spans the distance between failure and success. Between frost and the rising of sap.”

Recently there have been a few barely detectable disturbances to his inanimate way of living. A container of fruit juice seems to have lost a few centimetres, and isn’t there one yoghurt pot less than was there this morning? He begins to take extra care securing his home, yet still has the feeling of something not being quite right.

Nagasaki (2)He sets up a webcam in his home and sits at work watching his kitchen as if studying the meteorological charts, waiting to detect any sign of disturbance.

It is a brief story where the revelation comes early, its slow residual effect only beginning in the aftermath. About halfway the narrative shifts, adding to the mystery of how the revelation impacts Shimura, as we no longer have access to his thoughts.

That it is based on a true story is enough to haunt the reader, but the way Eric Faye narrates it, contributes to the way this story inhabits the mind as we read. Like the best stories, it stays with you long after reading and invites discussion with others about how such a thing could happen in our society.

And it will make you check your door locks more carefully.

 

Note: Thank you to Gallic Books for providing a copy of the book.

The Foundling Boy – Le jeune homme vert by Michel Déon

Foundling2Thank you to publisher Gallic Books, who noticing that I had recently read The Lost Domain (le Grand Meaulnes) by Alain-Fournier suggested I might also enjoy Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy. Originally written in French Le jeune homme vert was first published in 1975 and now translated into English for the first time, is beginning to be enjoyed by readers of the English language.

Set in Grangeville, Normandy in the inter-war years prior to WWII, it is a coming-of-age story of the young Jean Arnaud, who starts his life in a basket on the doorstep of Albert, a one-legged war veteran, now a pacifist gardener cum caretaker  and his wife Jeanne, who raise the child as their own.

Jean grows up in the shadow of Michel and Antoinette, children of Antoine de Couseau, an errant landowner whose father built up a fortune, only for his son to slowly lose it all – unsurprisingly as much of the first 200 pages is spent in his company, a man who whenever challenged by his wife or confronted by business decisions, takes to his latest model Bugatti, a car he replaces every year and heads south, following what becomes a well-worn trail via Lyon, Aix, St Tropez to Menton, allegedly to see his grown daughter Genevieve, recuperating in a hospital residence from lung problems.

The visits rarely last longer than a wave from the window before he heads off to enjoy the hospitality and warm sheets of various mistresses en route and this being France of course, the husbands all take it in their stride.

There is a real fascination throughout the novel for unique cars that love to take to the road. I went back to look at the references which I probably glossed over in my first read, now much more knowledgeable about Ettore Bugatti and his racing cars, from the 1923 Type 22 here on the left through many other models to the 1938 57SC Atlantic on the right. And Antoine de Couseau is not the only character whom Jean Arnaud meets, to possess a similar fascination. For being raised a peasant, he has seen many a luxurious interior when it comes to cars.

Jean too, has a love of his bike and travel and will spend four days in London, developing a taste and allure for freedom and adventure and not long after will follow in the footsteps of the writer Stendhal to Milan, Florence and Rome, meeting up with Ernst, a German lad who is following a similar trail in the footsteps of Goethe, his father’s hero – having swapped his son’s copy of Mein Kampf for Goethe’s Italienische Reise (Italian Journey).

Arnauds JourneyThe two young men share adventures, debate philosophical perspectives and encounter the fragility of friendship in the face of prejudice and racism.

Losing everything and having almost become the amoureux slave of a restaurant proprietor, who offers him a job so he can earn enough money to return home, Jean finally returns making the acquaintance of Palfry on his way, only to discover things at home vastly changed.

Throughout all Jean’s experiences, there are the interactions with family, friends, neighbours, villagers and people he meets along the way, it is not enough to accept the wisdom of others, he wants to explore for himself, whether it is the landscapes of neighbouring countries or the social acquaintances of his friend Palfry, a man who gave him a ride in his car dressed as a priest and whom he meets at various stages in his life who teaches him that things are not always as they seem. Ultimately, this searching might also be to understand who he really is, something within him, but that he also seeks outside from those he knows, the mystery of his birth.

“What is certain is that, overnight, Jean Arnaud matured by several years, learning that a priest may also be a plotter, and that without being thieves and murderers men might have to hide from the police because they were defending a noble cause. The world was not built of flawless blocks, of good and bad, of pure and impure. More subtle divisions undermined the picture he had so far been given of morality and duty. “

Fairly early on, it occurred to me that nearly every female character was caricatured as something of an object, the neighbour’s daughter, the house-maids, the women Antoine de Courseau encounters on his travels, even his daughter Geneviève becomes a ‘kept’ woman.

While it is an engaging and entertaining read, that moves along at the rambling, colourful pace of a joy-ride in a Bugatti, it began to feel like a book written for men, for it is they who travel (with the exception perhaps of Geneviève), have adventures, engage in meaningful banter, witty dialogue and to whom much of the advice within is given.

I admit to a moment of despair in being unable to think of one woman with redeeming qualities, that a female reader might relate to, why even the landlady of the Bed & Breakfast in Dover drags the poor 13-year-old youth off to the pub keeping him there till closing, Jean’s first impression of England is certainly one that stays long in his memory.

Jean purchases himself a notebook early on in his journeys and in his letters and notes, we are witness to how he begins to see the world:

I’ve bought myself a notebook where I’ve started making a few notes:

a) Duplicity: absolutely necessary for a life without dramas. You have to harden your heart. I need to be capable, without blushing to my roots, of sleeping with a woman and then being a jolly decent chap to her lover or husband. This is essential. Without it society would be impossible.

I guess, we could just say it is delightfully French and certainly the women are not portrayed as victims, quite the opposite in many cases, but they did make this reader pause for reflection. An eye-opening, memorable journey through the European landscape whilst inhabiting a very French culture and perspective.

Michel Déon inhabits his male characters with pride and indeed enjoys himself so much, he can’t help but put himself into the narrative from time to time speaking with much enthusiasm and familiarity directly to the reader. And with good reason, for it has been said of his young hero that:

“The character of Jean Arnaud has been heralded as one of French literature’s great adolescents, alongside Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Alain-Fournier’s Augustin Meaulnes.”

les vingt ans

Michel Déon has the last say, as he leaves Jean Arnaud in a military camp on the eve of war, a sealed envelope in his pocket with instructions not to open it unless he is in extreme need, his life full of promise yet hardly begun by telling us not to worry about those things he has not revealed, that here he was a foundling boy and in another book, he will tell the story of how his protagonist becomes a man.

The sequel, The Foundling’s War (Les Vingt Ans du Jeune Homme Vert) is due to be translated into English and published also by Gallic Books. I am intrigued to know what Jean Arnaud makes of life given his experience thus far and how war might change him. Watch this space!

The People in the Photo – Eux sur la photo by Hélène Gestern

Belgravia BooksI have been patiently waiting for this book to be published since discovering it at the same time I learned of the existence of Gallic Books, francophile publishers based in London specialising in bringing a varied collection of excellent French titles across genres to the English reading world. You can buy their books online or at Belgravia Books which specialises in books in translation (5 mins walk from Victoria train station).

I had something of a French literature binge in December, reading Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck’s Report, Alain Fournier’s classic The Lost Domain, Faïza Guène’s young adult novel Just Like Tomorrow and a couple of Albert Camus essays in commemoration of his 100th anniversary. And I am set to continue this theme in 2014, perhaps even venturing into reading a few in the original language!

The People in the Photo is Hélène Gestern’s debut novel and centres on 40-year-old Parisian archivist Hélène’s personal endeavour to learn more about her mother Nathalie, who died when she was four-years-old and about whom no-one would ever speak, not her father, nor her step-mother or any other person and she never understood why.

Gestern

Her father has passed away and now her stepmother, the last living connection between her and her mother is seriously unwell, an event that prompts her into action.
Hélène has only one photo of her mother alongside two unknown men and places an advertisement to try to find anyone who might recognise them.

It marks the beginning of a correspondence and indeed much of the novel is in epistolary form, made up of letters and emails, with the exception of extracts that describe the various photos that are uncovered by Hélène and Stéphane, a Swiss biologist, who recognises one of the men in the photo.

The letters add more than just their content to the narrative, they are an adept device for creating pace and intrigue, their length and dates are significant measuring the time that passes, the pauses, the urgency of an occasional email and yet there is an unwillingness to let go of the controlled structure and single dialogue of the letter, their preferred medium; the revealing sign-off salutations a clue to the developing relationship between the two protagonists.

LettersIt is a revelatory journey of two people into the past of their parent’s lives. Inherent in delving into the past, no matter how necessary it may seem, is the risk of deception, disappointment, even horror in enlightenment.

Hélène Gestern deftly captures the seesaw of emotions as both characters experience waves of exhilaration in their search and periods of retreat from the insinuations of discovery, suggestions they aren’t always ready to face the implications of.

At times the characters seemed extraordinarily restrained, upon receiving a box likely to contain pertinent information, Hélène leaves it unopened for days, her excuse – no time or inclination, yet there is always sufficient to write the correspondence. It is understandable in a sense, the fear of what the revelation will bring, then Stéfane does the same, after developing a set of photos, has no time to look at them, yet has time for a 2 hour walk and his correspondence as well.

Perhaps the lure of corresponding with the living, that ever-present possibility of a future still to be enjoyed, sometimes overwhelms the need to continue digging into a dusty, forgotten past that holds little promise of joy. Or it might just be the sign of a compelling read, and our impatience with characters, living or between the pages of a book, who don’t act as we might, were we in their shoes.

It is a captivating read, intensely thought-provoking and intricately plotted, revealing little by little clues to lives lived in a distant era, yet which explain much of the more recent past for two young people allowing them greater understanding and the potential for forgiveness of those who, until their truth was revealed, were to them like shadows of their former selves.

Note: Thank you kindly to Gallic Books for sending me a copy of the book to read and review.