Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck tr. Susan Bernofsky #WITMonth

I’ve attempted to read Visitation about four times and never succeeded in getting past the first few chapters, but this year I persevered as I felt I hadn’t given it a fair chance.

Now that I’ve finished it, I realise I held unrealistic expectations when I first came across it. I bought my hardcover version in Daunt Books in Marylebone on a visit to London in 2010, I was aware of it after having read a review in the Guardian, this was in the early days when I was newly discovering works by writers in translation.

Jenny Erpenbeck was being hailed as “the rising star of the German literary scene” and her work described as “one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing.” I wanted to discover what that meant, to read it and feel it. Naive. I wasn’t yet able to discern in the little explored world of translations, which voices I would lean towards and appreciate, or to value my reading perceptions.

I began this book a few times and the striking and original wasn’t happening. I shouldn’t have read those blurbs, I should have read it without any expectation and then moved on to her next books, which have gone on to develop a wider audience, won prizes and further established her as that which that was predicted.

Visitation is a veiled narrative that shows a little of the lives of a few people who lived alongside a lake that was formed about thirteen thousand years, whose origins might be traced back to a glacier from twenty-four thousand years ago. Beginning the book with this geological origin reminds us of our insignificance and the inevitability of change and transformation.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

The first chapter is entitled ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’ and tells of the local mayor, who comes from a long line of men, all who have been Mayor of the village, the chapter tells of many traditions, rituals and superstitions, of what is meant to be, to happen, to the point of extreme ridiculousness, as if thousands of years of rituals have piled up on top of one another, awaiting the seismic event that will topple them all. Because he has only procured girls, the inevitable is indeed waiting to happen, for there will be no new Mayor from his family and change is coming to Brandenburg. History as we know is about to impact this family and others, people are going to have to leave and strangers are going to arrive.

When they returned to Germany, it was a long time she and her husband could bring themselves to shake hands with people they didn’t know. They had felt a virtually physical revulsion when faced with all these people who had willingly remained behind.

In between the chapters with titles encompassing their time there, like ‘The Architect’, the Architect’s Wife’, ‘the Red Army Officer’, ‘the Subtenants’, ‘the Girl’, ‘the Writer’, ‘the Visitor’, ‘the Childhood Friend’, are the chapters of ‘The Gardener’, the one closest to nature, the one consistent thread that exists throughout all the others, as the others succumb to the effects of the era in history they embrace – pre-war(s) to post war Germany, is the man with no name, who looks after everything, but who is a cycle of nature himself, so that by the end, as his (in)ability changes, so too do others that come in have to either take up his responsibilities or allow things to fall into neglect.

Laced with melancholy, it offers snippets of lives of those who dwell(ed) near this lake, wood, village – the compromises, the passing of seasons, the building, destroying of things, relationships – why strangers are both spurned and revered and always The Gardener, the one who tends, who observes, who slowly wilts, forcing others to adapt.

While I appreciate what it attempts to do, I didn’t find the novel engaging, that melancholy combined with the veiled effect, of keeping the reader at a distance from the characters, of only seeing so much, instilled in it for me, a kind a quiet dread, a feeling drained of hope, as if there was no escape from a dire inevitability, no matter what it was. The psyche of the era it was set in perhaps; if so, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of a country, its people and the spectre of its past.

 

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal #WITMonth

Although I’ve read reviews and seen this book appear often over the last year, and knew I really wanted to read it, I couldn’t remember what is was about or why.

It was down to a consistent feeling and feedback from readers whose views I respect, their brief tweets of encouragement igniting the flame of motivation that made me choose this as the first #WIT (Women in Translation) novel I’d read in August 2018. Yes, it is WIT Month again, now in its 5th year!

So how to describe this remarkable novel?

There’s a clue in the two versions of the English translations, (the American and British English versions have different titles and different translators). The novel was originally written in French and ironically one of the characters, a 50-year-old woman awaiting a heart transplant in a Parisian hospital, is also a translator.

The American translation (by Sam Taylor) is entitled The Heart and it is indeed a story that follows the heart of a 19-year-old youth from the moment his alarm clock rings at 5.50 a.m one morning, an hour he rarely awakes, as he sets off with two friends on a surfing mission during a rare mid-winter half-tide; over the next 24 hours until his body is meticulously prepared to be laid to rest.

He lets out a whoop as he takes his first ride, and for a period of time he touches a state of grace – its horizontal vertigo, he’s neck and neck with the world, and as though issued from it, taken into its flow – space swallows him, crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood; the wave unfolds on a blurred timeline, slow or fast it’s impossible to tell, it suspends each second one by one until it finishes pulverised, an organic, senseless mess and it’s incredible but after having been battered by pebbles in the froth at the end, Simon Limbeau turns to go straight back out again.

The British translation (by Jessica Moore) is entitled Mend the Living, broader in scope, it references the many who lie with compromised organs, who dwell in a twilight zone of half-lived lives, waiting to see if their match will come up, knowing when it does, it will likely be a sudden opportunity, to receive a healthy heart, liver, or kidney from a donor, taken violently from life.

It could also refer to those who facilitate the complex conversations and interventions, those with empathy and sensitivity who broach the subject to parents not yet able to comprehend, let alone accept what is passing – to those with proficiency, who possess a singular ambition to attain perfection in their chosen field, harvesting and transplanting organs.

Maylis de Kerangal writes snapshots of scenes that pass on this one day, entering briefly into the personal lives of those who have some kind of involvement in the event and everything that transpires connected to it, in the day that follows.

It’s like the writer wields a camera, zooming in on the context of the life of each person; the parents, separated, who will be brought together, the girlfriend confused by a long silence, the nurse waiting for a text message from last nights tryst, the female intern following in the family tradition, the Doctor who she will shadow removing thoughts of the violent passion of the woman he abandoned when his pager went off, and the one who bookends the process who listens to the questions and requests, who respects the concerns of the living and the dead, the one who sings and is heard.

Within the hospital, the I.C.U. is a separate space that takes in tangential lives, opaque comas, deaths foretold – it houses those bodies situated exactly at the point between life and death. A domain of hallways and rooms where suspense holds sway.

The translator Jessica Moore refers to her task in translating the authors work, as ‘grappling with Maylis’s labyrinthe phrases’, which can feel like what it must be like to be an amateur surfer facing the wave, trying and trying again, to find the one that fits, the wave and the rider, the words and the translator. She gives up trying to turn what the author meant into suitable phrases and leaves interpretation to the future, potential reader, us.

It is an extraordinary novel in its intricate penetration and portrayal of medical procedure, it’s obsession with language, with extending its own vocabulary, its length of phrase, as if we are riding a wave of words, of long sentences strung out across a shoreline, that end with a dumping in the shallows.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s own father had a heart attack, which put the writing on hold and sent her thinking to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

A deserving winner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, a prize that rewards books that illuminate the human experience through its interaction with health, medicine and illness, literature engaging with science and medical themes, the book has also been made into a successful film and two stage productions.

Highly Recommended.

Interview with Maylis de KerangalWhat is a Heart? by Claire Armistead

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

A friend lent me this book and I recognised immediately that it was a Europa Editions book, but not one I had heard of Europa Editions are one of my favourite publishers, they always have something that will appeal to me in their annual catalog. Many of the books are of Italian origin, or translated from other European languages.

A Catalog of Birds however, is written by the American author Laura Harrington.

Some of the books Europa Editions have published that I’ve read and reviewed here are, that you might enjoy, are the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, starting with My Brilliant Friend and Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey, also by her The Days of Abandonment, the novel that is like its twin, Ties by Domenico Starnone; the World Noir title The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio de Giovanni, Eva Sleeps by Francesca Malendri, The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroubi, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng and a new one that I have to read, which I’m really looking forward to, the French translation of Disoriental by Negar Djvadi.

A Catalog of Birds centres around a small 1970’s community in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, an area known for its series of long, thin, deep glacial lakes, it’s high gorges and dramatic waterfalls (and today its wineries).

Despite its natural beauty, this community is affected, as every other is and has been, by the shadow of war, of young men returning from Vietnam, lost dreams, a lost innocence.

The Flynn family’s son Billy has just returned, his body covered in burns, his right arm mangled, his hearing disturbed, after surviving a helicopter crash. The day after his return, his girlfriend Megan disappears.

Megan

Megan hesitates before boarding the bus to a place she’s never been before, hesitates before accepting a ride with a stranger. Thinking of Billy, that horrible hospital, all those wrecked young men and boys. She’s in flight, in flight from it all.
Remembers Billy’s last leave. A year of training under his belt. Three days at home before shipping out to Vietnam. Both of them in the grip of something: anticipation, fear, the unknown.

Billy’s field journal

The early pages from Vietnam alternate between scenes on the base: insects, common birds, sketches of his crew; and pages where he was off the base: acres of green, rice paddies, water buffalo. There are birds Nell has never seen before, drawn as only Billy can; each of them so individual, so full of personality you expect them to sing.
Black crowned night heron
Glossy ibis
Pacific swift
There are fewer entries as the months drag on: a lone man crouched in tall burning grass, the shadow of a gunship passing over him, mountaintops ringed with clouds, ravines dark as the far side of the moon. These give way to drawings of the dead, downed helicopters, the last pages full of fire. Page after page: birds, trees, fields, burning.

Billy and his younger sister Nell have a close relationship, they know the surrounding lakes and forests like no other, they are connected to their natural environment in a way that even a highly educated academic specialising in the birds they know so well, had much to learn from.

Esme, 45 yr old ornithologist

Over the years Billy taught Esme a new way to listen, showed her how birds organise their communication, how to read body language between pairs, the meaning of their back-and-forth chat, how they check in on each other, the various warning sounds.

Nell

Billy’s journals are the thread of their childhood; his coming into his own as a naturalist, as an artist, developing his eye, his hand, his deepening identification with birds. From sketching in the field to detailed study, to painting the portraits he began to make the year before he shipped out.

Both Billy’s father Jack and his best friend Harlow, also bear and have borne the hardship of the return from war, they cope in their own way, as has Marion, Jack’s wife, waiting out the long semi-recovery, which in the early years, tests every man who dares survive war’s dark parasitic claim to their sanity. Now they must watch Billy go through the same test.

Harlow Murphy

On good days he fell right into a rhythm of forgetting, found a girl not quite so dedicated to her antiwar stance she’d forego sleeping with a vet, and then drank enough to numb his nightmares. On bad days he was rendered speechless by fury and confusion. He grew his hair long. Learned never to talk about the war.

Jack

“Did you have nightmares Dad?”
“Still do.”
The minutes tick long.
“You can’t leave it. You just end up carrying it.” He takes another swallow of Scotch. “I don’t know how to help him,” he admits. Shamed to hear the words out loud.
“Just love him.”
He looks at his daughter again, wishes it were enough, wishes he didn’t know the limits of love and hope, how little, really, can be covered over, hidden away, made whole.

Nell is too young to remember her father’s return from war, her memories are of the good times she had with her brother and his friend, of the strange feelings that engulf her, of the terrible knowledge of things she knows about Megan, of a desperation to protect her brother, to save his drawings, to bring him back to where he was, when they would go out on the lake, sit in among the trees, listen to birdsong, recognise their warnings, to just be.

Nell

Something lifts in Nell, hearing her brother laugh like that.
She looks at Harlow’s hands. They’re square and strong, the Coke bottle almost disappears in them. Thinks of picking apples in the Alsop orchard. The boys thought ladders were for sissies. Determined to keep up with them, she tried to find a handhold and a foothold to get into the tree. Harlow reached down, grabbed her forearm, pulled her up beside him.
That sudden wash of closeness as she found her footing and her balance. The smell of his skin, touching him. The sun low in the sky, the trees heavy with fruit. Hidden from the others. Light-headed. Vibrating with a feeling she didn’t know how to describe. Twelve years old. How she had wanted to kiss him.
Still does. But it doesn’t look like that’s ever gonna happen again.

Billy

He flirts with driving so fast she’ll be scared into telling him the truth, a truth he probably already knows. Feels her fear then, takes his foot off the gas.
How stupid they were; believing nothing could touch them, catch them, destroy what they had. Willfully blind to the facts, to the birds and the bees, for godsakes. Charmed, meant to be, summer of love, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
He looks at Nell, thinks of how he kept Harlow away from her, but still took what he wanted with Megan. With everything. Grabbed what he wanted with both hands. Flying. The war. Intoxicated in the air. Every time he walked across the tarmac, climbed into the bird. All he’d ever wanted. More awake, more alert, more alive than anytime before or since.

This is a thought-provoking novel about the effect of war on those who were involved in it, on those closest to them, who try to nurture them through the aftermath, about the inclination to not ever to want to speak about what happened, and how that and the changed behaviour trauma causes, affects everyone.

I hope the selection of quotes above provides something of the essence of the novel, it seemed to me that they resonate more than anything I could contribute by way of the review. It is a touching novel that captures the beauty of a shared childhood, the complicity of adolescent friendship and loyalty, the struggle of families, of how they split and come back together, of love, of loss, of the difficulty of practicing forgiveness.

Buy A Catalog of Birds Here

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018 #WomensPrize

Today the short list was announced for the woman’s prize for fiction. From the longlist of 13 books, six books have been chosen.

The Chair of Judges Sarah Sands had this to say:

“The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges. The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

I’ve actually read and reviewed three of the six chosen titles, all of which I really enjoyed, and I would like to read Sight and The Mermaid, so overall I think it’s an impressive list, even though the prize completely ignored the outstanding novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

The shortlist is as follows, beginning with the three I’ve read, then the two I’d like to, all six revealed here in biscuit form, made by @BiscuiteersLtd :

Meena KandasamyWhen I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife  – my review here

  • a literary artwork, a portrait of a writer suffering in a four-month marriage, surviving through writing, her imagination and now looking back and turning what could have destroyed her into a blazing, unforgettable novel.

Kamila ShamsieHome Fire my review here

  • a heartbreaking tragic work, a modern retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who protect the state’s security, set in London, told through an immigrant family struggling to distance themselves from the patterns of their ancestral past.

Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing – my review here

  • narrated from three points of view, 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the spectre of a young man Richie, it’s a coming-of-age story about surviving a dysfunctional family, haunted by the past, and spirits that won’t rest.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

  • Historical fiction with a splash of magic realism, a merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by the arrival of a mermaid in Georgian London, 1785 – a debut novel inspired by a “real mermaid” in the British Museum.

 

Jessie GreengrassSight

  • a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, remembering the death of her mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother – alongside events in medical history – emerging into a realisation. 

Elif BatumanThe Idiot

  • a campus novel, reflecting on how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

 

***

Of the three I’ve read, I think Meena Kandasamy’s stood out the most for me, in particular because I initially avoided it, and then was blown away by how the subject was so uniquely and adeptly handled. It’s a form of autobiographical fiction, some debating whether it is indeed a novel, being based in part on the author’s life.

So what do you think of the list, do you have a favourite, or one you really want to read?

Buy any of the books on the shortlist via Bookdepository

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz tr. Sarah Moses, Carolina Orloff

Usually I read books because I am drawn to them by the premise, by the cultural setting, by an author’s intriguing background and experience which suggests to me they may have interesting insights to explore within a novel.

I hesitated about whether to read Die, My Love because of what I perceived as its intensity, I thought it might be depressing. The reviewer whom I expressed this too, responded:

I would say razor-sharp and brutally honest rather than depressing. No punches are pulled.

She was reviewing it, along with all the other titles long listed for the new Republic of Consciousness literary prize created by novelist Neil Griffiths to acknowledge and celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” published in the UK and Ireland.

When it was short listed for this prize and simultaneously long listed for the Man Booker International 2018, I decided to read it and find out, despite the earlier hesitation, similarly to the feeling I had about reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

We meet a young woman, a university educated foreigner, living in the French countryside with her husband and their small child, another on the way. She is lying in the grass, in 35°C (95°F) summer heat, thinking disturbing, violent thoughts against those around her, while expressing an acute, brutal self-hatred alongside an intense uncontrollable desire.

Blonde or dark? Whatever you’re having, my love. We’re one of those couples who mechanize the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish.

It’s written in an urgent stream of consciousness narrative, focused on the minutiae of her day, much of it spent waiting for her husband to return from work, observing herself by turn, in her acts of taking care of and neglecting the needs of her helpless son, fantasizing about harming herself.

I throw out the heavy nappy and walk towards the patio doors. I always toy with the idea of going right through the glass and cutting every inch of my body, always aiming to pass through my own shadow. But just before I hit it, I stop myself and slide it open.

It’s a rendition of spiralling out of control, sometimes playing the part of mother, in front of friends on the odd occasion they’re invited to a birthday party or playing the daughter in law at a family gathering, but not too hard, because it is impossible, the insanity too close to be able to sustain any form of denial for too long a period of time.

When my husband’s away, every second of silence is followed by a hoard of demons infiltrating my brain.

If she’s not going crazy from the silence, she’s targeting the weak, aggressing the overweight nurse who comes to tend to the neighbour, acting haughty with the women working in the supermarket, the pizza delivery men, the manicurists.

I yell at them in public. I like to make a scene, humiliate them, show them how cowardly they are. Because that’s what they are: chickens. How come none of them have tried to fight me? How come none of them have called the authorities to have me deported?

As a reader, I can’t help asking questions, like, what is this? Is this postpartum depression? No, this was a pre-existing condition that started before she gave birth, that continued afterwards and seems never to have ended.

Is this the result of leaving her education, her intellectual self behind? Of embracing motherhood? Of being separated from her country, culture, her family, the way of her own people? Those things are never ever mentioned, never alluded too, never missed, there is no nostalgia for the past, only a visceral disgust for the present, a desire for a future where she is taken out, extinguished.

We were only just waking up from the weekend and already we were fighting. At half past eight I let out the first scream, at nine-twenty I threatened to leave, and at nine-fifty I said I’d make his life a living hell. By ten past ten, I was standing like a ram in the middle of the road with my straw hat on, suitcase in hand and flies in my eardrums.

She reflects that even were she to get hit and killed, it would unlikely gain her sympathy, that would be saved for her poor child, left without a mother.

No one grieves for the wretched woman with scarred arms who was consumed by the misery of life.

She blames desire, calls it a destructive hunger, an alarm, ferocious.

Not even digging a hole, a pit, would be enough. It needs to be thrown into the desert and devoured by wild beasts. Desire that is.

I waver between wondering if this is something a woman would experience if the circumstances are created that deprive her of the things she needs for sustenance, or is this a woman creating what she perceives as art, an art form that is designed to shock, to provoke a response in its audience.

In an interview by Jackie Law at Never Imitate, when asked about her inspiration, Ariana Harwicz responded:

Motherhood as a form of prison, a trap, an ordinary destiny. Writing the novel was a chance to escape that.

When asked about herself:

I always say that I was born when I wrote Die, My Love. Before then, I was alive, in the same way that everybody is alive, yet for me that is not really being alive. I had recently had a baby, I had moved to live in the countryside next to a forest. I would watch the thunderstorms, I would go horse-riding, but that was not life for me. And then I wrote Die, My Love, immersed in that desperation between death and desire. Die, My Love comes from that. I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.

In a podcast with the London Review Bookshop, she expressed interest first and foremost in the question ‘What is it, to be an artist?’, her response to her own question illuminating:

An artist, is someone is willing to break tradition, convention and transgress outside the norm

This is what she succeeds in doing in Die, My Love. She pursues it with intellectual vigour, with a bold, unapologetic, Argentinian energy that busts out of convention, leaves the old form of language and expression behind, takes her literary weapons into the forest and wreaks havoc on the page and in the mind of the reader.

Note: Thank you to Charco Press, independent publisher of contemporary Latin American literature, for providing an e-book.

Buy a copy of Die, My Love from Charco Press

Man Booker International Prize 2018 long list

I like to read books that come from within other cultures, so a literature prize that brings attention to authors from outside the predominant literary cultures interests me.

The Man Booker International Prize was originally established in 2005, biannually rewarding an author for a body of work originally written in any language as long as it was widely available in English.

From 2016, the prize became a translation prize, awarded annually for a single work of fiction, translated into English and published in the UK. To highlight the importance of translation, the £50,000 prize is divided equally between the author and the translator.

The Man Booker International Prize has revealed their ‘Man Booker Dozen’ of 13 novels in contention for the 2018 prize, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world. As with the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, extract summaries of the books are provided via the Prize website.

The judges considered 108 books. Lisa Appignanesi, chair of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, commented:

‘Judging this Man Booker International Prize has been an exhilarating adventure. We have travelled across countries, cultures, imaginations, somehow to arrive at what could have been an even longer long list. It’s one which introduces a wealth of talent, a variety of forms and some writers little known in English before. It has great writing and translating energy and we hope readers take as much pleasure in discovering the work as we did.’

The full 2018 longlist is as follows: Author (nationality), Translator, Title (imprint)

Laurent Binet (France), Sam Taylor(tr.), The 7th Function of Language (Harvill Secker)

Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It’s February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with François Mitterrand, a slippery politician locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything.

Javier Cercas (Spain), Frank Wynne(tr.), The Impostor (MacLehose Press)

The Impostor is a true story that is packed with fiction – fiction created by its main character, Enric Marco. But who is Enric Marco? A veteran of the Spanish civil war, a fighter against fascism, an impassioned campaigner for justice, and a survivor of the Nazi death camps? Or, is he simply an old man with delusions of grandeur, a charlatan who fabricated his heroic war record, who was never a prisoner in the Third Reich and never opposed Franco, but simply a charming, beguiling and compulsive liar who refashioned himself as a defender of liberty and who was unmasked in 2005 at the height of his influence and renown?

In this novel – part narrative, part history, part essay, part biography, part autobiography – Javier Cercas unravels the man and delves with passion and honesty into the most ambiguous aspects of what makes us human – our infinite capacity for self-deception, our need for conformity, our thirst for affection and our conflicting needs for fiction and for the truth.

Virginie Despentes (France), Frank Wynne (tr.), Vernon Subutex 1 (MacLehose Press)

Vernon Subutex was once the proprietor of Revolver, an infamous music shop in Bastille. His legend spread throughout Paris. But by the 2000s, with the arrival of the internet and the decline in CDs and vinyl, his shop is struggling. When it closes, Subutex is out on a limb, with no idea what to do next. Nothing sticks. Before long, his savings are gone, his employment benefit is cut, and when the friend who had been covering his rent dies suddenly, Subutex finds himself relying on friends with spare sofas and ultimately alone and out on the Paris streets. But, as he is stretching out his hand to beg from strangers in the street, a throwaway comment he made on Facebook is taking the internet by storm.

Vernon does not realise this, of course. It has been many weeks since he was able to afford access to the internet, but the word is out: Vernon Subutex has in his possession the last filmed recordings of Alex Bleach, famous musician and Vernon’s benefactor, who recently died of a drug overdose. Unbeknown to Vernon, a crowd of people, from record producers to online trolls and porn stars, are now on his trail.

Jenny Erpenbeck (Germany), Susan Bernofsky(tr.), Go, Went, Gone (Portobello Books)

Newly retired Richard is considering his new life without his work as a university professor.  He spends his days cooking, pottering in his garden and walking around his home city of Berlin – a place he has lived his entire life. Following an excursion to Alexanderplatz he befriends a group of African men whose camp is being pulled down by the authorities. These asylum seekers have found their way to Berlin from all over Africa by way of Libya and then Italy. They have no ‘right’ to be in Berlin, and they must follow the protocols and rules if they have any hope in being allowed to remain.

Richard is captivated by their stories and by their predicament.  Born during World War II, he was almost lost as a baby due to the ‘chaos of war’. He grew up and worked in East Berlin until one day East and West unified and his home and horizons changed dramatically. Go, Went, Gone is a novel that explores some of the most important issues of the day of race, immigration and the question of European identity.

Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith(tr.), The White Book (Portobello Books)

An unnamed narrator moves to a European city where she is haunted by the story of her older sister, who died a mere two hours after birth. As she contemplates the child’s short life she focuses on the whiteness and all it symbolises. The White Book is a meditation on colour, beginning with a list of white things. It is a book about mourning, rebirth and the tenacity of the human spirit. It investigates the fragility, beauty and strangeness of life.

Ariana Harwicz (Argentina), Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff(tr.), Die, My Love (Charco Press) – my review here

In a patch of dilapidated French countryside, a woman struggles with the demons of her multitudinous internal conflicts. Embracing exclusion, yet desiring to belong, craving freedom whilst feeling trapped, yearning for family life and yet wanting to burn the entire façade down. Given surprising leeway by her family for her increasingly erratic behaviour, she instead feels ever more incarcerated, stifled. Motherhood, womanhood, the mechanisation of love, the inexplicable brutality of having ‘your heart live in someone else’s’; these questions are faced with raw intensity. It is not a question of whether a breaking point will be reached, but rather when, and how violent a form will it take.

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary), John Batki, Ottilie Mulzet & George Szirtes, The World Goes On (Tuskar Rock Press)

A Hungarian interpreter obsessed with waterfalls, at the edge of the abyss in his own mind, wanders the chaotic streets of Shanghai. A traveller, reeling from the sights and sounds of Varanasi, encounters a giant of a man on the banks of the Ganges ranting on the nature of a single drop of water. A child labourer in a Portuguese marble quarry wanders off from work one day into a surreal realm alien from his daily toils. A collection of 21 stories from the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2015.

Antonio Muñoz Molina (Spain), Camilo A. Ramirez, Like a Fading Shadow (Tuskar Rock Press)

On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered by James Earl Ray. Before Ray’s capture and sentencing to 99 years’ imprisonment, he evaded the FBI for two months as he crossed the globe under various aliases. At the heart of his story is Lisbon, where he spent 10 days attempting to acquire an Angolan visa. Aided by the recent declassification of James Earl Ray’s FBI case file, Like a Fading Shadow weaves a taut retelling of Ray’s assassination of King, his time on the run and his eventual capture, tied together with an honest examination of the novelist’s own past.

Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), Simon Pare, The Flying Mountain (Seagull Books)

The Flying Mountain tells the story of two brothers who leave the southwest coast of Ireland on an expedition to Transhimalaya, the land of Kham, and the mountains of eastern Tibet – looking for an untamed, unnamed mountain that represents perhaps the last blank spot on the map. As they advance toward their goal, the brothers find their past, and their rivalry, inescapable, inflecting every encounter and decision as they are drawn farther and farther from the world they once knew. Only one of the brothers will return. Transformed by his loss, he starts life anew, attempting to understand the mystery of love, yet another quest that may prove impossible.

Ahmed Saadawi (Iraq), Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Oneworld)

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, the junk dealer Hadi collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them a proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realises he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive – first from the guilty, and then from anyone who crosses his path. As the violence escalates and Hadi’s acquaintances – a journalist, a government worker and a lonely old woman – become involved, the ‘Whatsitsname’ and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined.

Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), Jennifer Croft, Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Flights is a novel about travel in the 21st century and human anatomy. From the 17th  century, the story of the real Dutch anatomist Philip Verheyen, who dissected and drew pictures of his own amputated leg, discovering in so doing the Achilles tendon. From the 18th century, the story of a North African-born slave turned Austrian courtier stuffed and put on display after his death in spite of his daughter’s ever more desperate protests, and the story of Chopin’s heart as it makes the covert journey from Paris to Warsaw, stored in a tightly sealed jar beneath his sister’s skirt. From the present we have the trials and tribulations of a wife accompanying her much older professor husband as he teaches a course on a cruise ship in the Greek islands, the quest of a Polish woman who emigrated to New Zealand as a teenager but must now return to Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and the slow descent into madness of a young husband whose wife and child mysteriously vanished on a vacation on a Croatian island and then appeared again with no explanation.

Through these narratives, interspersed with short bursts of analysis and digressions on topics ranging from travel-sized cosmetics to the Maori, Flights guides the reader beyond the surface layer of modernity and towards the core of the very nature of humankind.

Wu Ming-Yi (Taiwan), Darryl Sterk, The Stolen Bicycle (Text Publishing) – my review here

Cheng, a novelist, once wrote a book based on his father’s disappearance 20 years ago. One day he receives a reader’s email asking whether his father’s bicycle disappeared as well. Perplexed and amused, Cheng decides to track down the bicycle, which was stolen years ago. The search takes him on an epic quest, deep into the secret world of antique bicycle collectors via a scavenger’s treasure trove and the mountain home of an aboriginal photographer. He also finds himself caught up in the strangely intertwined stories of Lin Wang, the oldest elephant who ever lived, the soldiers who fought in the jungles of South-East Asia during the World War II and the secret worlds of the butterfly handicraft makers… The Stolen Bicycle is both a historical novel about bicycles, elephants and war, and a startlingly intimate meditation on memory, family and home.

Gabriela Ybarra (Spain), Natasha Wimmer, The Dinner Guest (Harvill Secker)

In 1977, three terrorists broke into Gabriela Ybarra’s grandfather’s home and pointed a gun at him in the shower. This was the last time his family saw him alive, and his kidnapping played out in the press, culminating in his murder. Ybarra first heard the story when she was eight, but it was only after her mother’s death, years later, that she felt the need to go deeper and discover more about her family’s past. The Dinner Guest is a novel inspired by what she found.  It connects two life-changing events – the very public death of Ybarra’s grandfather and the more private pain as her mother dies from cancer and Gabriela cares for her.

***

I haven’t read any of these books, though I am familiar with a number of the authors, I’ve read two excellent books by Han Kang, Human Acts and The Vegetarian. I’ve been meaning to read Jenny Erpenbeck for a while.

I like the sound of the novels that intertwine memoir with fiction, Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest and Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle.

The list does feel a little too Euro-centric for my taste, with 9 of the 13 storytellers coming from Europe, it’s great to see an Argentinian author included, I did read that Charco Press discovered in an informal survey that many readers when asked to name a South American author are mentioning names who were popular 30 years ago, so they’re aiming to bring us up to speed with some exciting contemporary authors who’ve been overlooked.

I’ll be waiting to read a few of the reviews from the Shadow panel in the coming weeks and months and in the meantime continue with reading a few more from the Women’s Prize.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on 12 April at an event at Somerset House in London, and the winner of the 2018 prize will be announced on 22 May.

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What are your thoughts on this list?

Click here to buy one of the above books via BookDepository

Women’s Prize for Fiction long list 2018 #WomensPrize

The annual Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night, on International Women’s Day.

No longer the Baileys Prize, this year there are three sponsors, including Bailey’s and the prize will simply be referred to as the Women’s Prize for fiction. The wider sponsorship aims to ‘build on the successes of the past and will also see the commercial possibilities to connect with a global audience’ while championing women’s creativity, celebrating excellence and keeping women’s voices centre stage.

“What is striking about the list, apart from the wealth of talent, is that women writers refuse to be pigeon-holed. We have searing social realism, adventure, comedy, poetic truths, ingenious plots and unforgettable characters. Women of the world are a literary force to be reckoned with.” Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.

This year, I have already read three from the list, I’ll link to my reviews at the end. The long listed books follow, with extracts via the Women’s Prize:

 

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker – a post – post apocalyptic Alice in Wonderland, of “daring narrative ingenuity”

Imagine a perfect world where everything is known, where everything is open, where there can be no doubt, no hatred, no poverty, no greed. Imagine a System which both nurtures and protects. A Community which nourishes and sustains. An infinite world. A world without sickness, without death. A world without God. A world without fear. Could you…might you be happy there?

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – portrait of the artist as a young woman, inventing herself, awakening

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. She studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do.  Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – a poignant perspective of community life &  the vulnerability of age

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago whom she fears? Florence, Elsie and Jack set to and unravel the mystery, getting them out of the home and out of their minds, that linger in the past.

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig – a novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and the ties of blood

Based of the lives of the author’s mother and grandparents, Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of one family struggling to find love, justice, and meaning during a time of war and political repression.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – historical novel with a hint of noir thriller, set in the Depression

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerised by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men. Years later, her father has disappeared, the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again and begins to unravel the complexity of her father’s life, and the reasons he might have vanished.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on….and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer their lives on a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – existential reflections of a pregnant woman

In Sight, a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother.

Woven among these personal recollections are significant events in medical history: Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of the X-ray and his production of an image of his wife’s hand; Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis and the work that he did with his daughter, Anna; John Hunter’s attempts to set surgery on a scientific footing and his work, as a collaborator with his brother William and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk, on the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

What emerges is the realisation that while the search for understanding might not lead us to an absolute truth, it is an end in itself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life. Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely anything is better than…fine?

 

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – fierce and courageous dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, a young woman falls in love with a university professor. Marrying him and moving to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about bullying her into his ideal of an obedient wife, and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she begins to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley – a novel about family, and a beautiful meditation on landscape

Daniel is heading north. He is looking for someone. The simplicity of his early life with Daddy and Cathy has turned sour and fearful. They lived apart in the house that Daddy built for them with his bare hands. They foraged and hunted. When they were younger, Daniel and Cathy had gone to school. But they were not like the other children then, and they were even less like them now. Sometimes Daddy disappeared, and would return with a rage in his eyes. But when he was at home he was at peace. He told them that the little copse in Elmet was theirs alone. But that wasn’t true. Local men, greedy and watchful, began to circle like vultures. All the while, the terrible violence in Daddy grew.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy – an aching love story and a decisive remonstration

Over a journey of many years, the story spools outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi to the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared.

Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S. Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her.

It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. They are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – a murder, an intimate story of a volatile household, a family devoid of love

Just after 11am on 4th August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden are discovered. He’s found on the sitting room sofa, she upstairs on the bedroom floor, both murdered with an axe.

It is younger daughter Lizzie who is first on the scene, so it is Lizzie who the police first question, but there are others in the household with stories to tell: older sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, the girls’ Uncle John, and a boy who knows more than anyone realises.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert – portrait of the Nazis’ arrival in Ukraine as they move towards the final solution

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of transportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak. Come in search of her lover to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia confronts new and harsh truths about those closest to her. Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to. And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy who must throw his chances of surviving to strangers.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – a contemporary retelling of the classic Antigone, the idealism of youth in dangerous times

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream – to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. The fates of these two families are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal – a moving story of love and loss, overcoming grief

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. A dollmaker, she lovingly crafts handmade dolls that she sells to collectors around the world, and provides bereavement counselling for mothers who have suffered stillbirths, miscarriages and cot deaths. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a portrait of a family, of hope, struggle and ugly truths

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

***

It’s an interesting list, with lots of familiar names to me, and many titles that I’ve seen reviewed by Eric at Lonesome Reader, who keeps up with reading and reviewing most of the new fiction coming out in the UK. I’m surprised not to see Ali Smith’s Winter there, nor Elizabeth Strout and disappointed not to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, which I’m going to write more about soon.

I’m in the middle of reading the excellent and humorous Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, the writing and her poignant depictions of characters are excellent. There are many on here I want to read, Sight was picked by Eric as his book likely to win the Man Booker this year and he’s pretty accurate with predictions, so I’d better read that, I’ve seen much written about When I Hit You, it’s one of those books I know is a mini masterpiece, but such a heartbreaking, soul-destroying subject to read about – still, I may have to read it now.

So which from the list are you interested in reading? Or disappointed not to see there?

Further Reading:

My Review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

My Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesymn Ward

My review of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

My review of When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

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