Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

Buy Farewell, My Orange

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N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.

Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

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Women in Translation 2018 Summary #WITMonth

During August I was back in reading mode after a busy period, so here is a brief impression of the books I read for Women in Translation month, an annual reading challenge I participate in as it fits appropriately with the kind of books I like to discover, those coming from countries and cultures other than Anglo, originally written in another language.

The reason they are highlighted in August is an attempt to raise awareness of the very narrow choice we give ourselves by only reading books in English, or from one’s own country and to highlight the fact that even when we do read outside our first language, the majority of books published, promoted and reviewed are written by men.

WIT Month is an attempt to redress the balance, and the hope is that publishers also respond by making more of an effort to seek books from voices that are little seen in print.

So this was my stack of possibles, there were eight books to choose from, I read six of them and I’m still reading the seventh (being back in another busy period, it may take a while to finish).

I read three books translated from French, one from German, one from Arabic (Egypt), one from Turkish and the one I didn’t read Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (I have read and enjoyed her novel The Door) was originally written in Hungarian.

Here are the summaries below, click on the title to read the full review:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal      🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Wow, this was a novel like other, translated from the French, embracing long descriptive, metaphoric passages, as it navigates 24 hours in the life of a young surfer, through snapshots of all he comes into contact with, or those whose lives will be affected by what has just happened to him. It is unique, original, dramatic, insightful, gut-wrenching at times and stays with you for a long time after, due to its thought-provoking subject.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s father had a heart attack, putting the writing on hold  sent her thoughts 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.”

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck     🌟🌟🌟

One I’ve tried to read over the years, but never got past the first few pages, this time I succeeded, though wasn’t wowed by it. A German novel focusing on a property by a lake, which we are reminded in the opening pages has been there for millions of years, since the glacial age.

The chapters that follow highlight aspects of the lives of a few human dwellers over a period of about one hundred years, shadowed by the tumultuous history of a landscape and the psyche of those who’ve tried to live in and control it.

“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

Disoriental by Négar Djavadi 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

I’m no sentimentalist, but when this one abruptly finished, a little salt water leaked from my eyes, witnessed by my 15-year-old son, staring at me in disbelief. It’s brilliant.

A woman sits in a Paris fertility clinic and spends the entire book giving up little updates on what that is all about, while she reflects on her childhood and upbringing in Iran, the lives of her parents, her gender confusion, her great-grandfather and his harem of 52 wives, the blue-eyed gene they all carry, the political activism of her parents, which would send them across the Kurdish mountains to exile in France via Turkey.

The Open Door by Latifa Al-Zayyat      🌟🌟🌟🌟

A unique and riveting view on a young woman’s coming of age in Cairo, Egypt, the roller coaster of emotions she goes through as she hits that turbulent period of becoming aware of the effect she has on a young man and what his proximity does to her.

It is heightened by the fear of how she will be perceived and judged by her peers, family and society, causing her to suppress her feelings and turn inward, when she really wants to express herself or explode. Which path will she choose?

“In ‘El Bab El Maftuh’ (The Open Door), Latifa al-Zayyat took on the widespread misogyny in Egyptian society like no other writer before her. The novel criticised the way women had to behave and dress, without attracting the slightest attention to themselves; the self-hatred with which the protagonist Laila grows up because she is a girl; and the social barriers that are placed in front of young women in the name of tradition and morality.” Sherif Abdel Samad

Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain      🌟🌟🌟🌟

Another light-hearted novella from one of my favourite French authors for humorous literature, this time he makes a parody of the newly introduced smoking laws, shining a hazy light on the reactions of some members of French society to the law and their efforts to avoid cooperating with it.

One man in particular seeks out a hypnotherapist and then wishes to undo the effect. It’s a laugh-out-loud entertaining read that will delight fans of The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook.

The Other Side of the Mountain by Erendiz Atasü       🌟🌟🌟

It reads like a mix of memoir, history and storytelling, as one woman reflects on her mother’s life, how little she knew of her and struggles to try to understand through what she has left behind.

It’s a theme I’ve noticed recently, the lack of understanding from only knowing a mother for the adult part of her life, the events that shaped her buried deep, coming out in behaviours misunderstood by the generations that follow, pondered on when it’s too late to find out more.

The story is told in the shadow of a period of Turkish history that traverses the Ottoman period to the Republic and beyond, across three generations of women. A little disjointed with the change in narrative perspective,  but a thought-provoking and informative read.

“The Revolutionary aim of the Republic was to create a social and cultural synthesis of East and West, and so bright students were sent to leading European universities to be educated not only in the sciences and technology, but also in literature, music and art.”

Hannah’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson

Another story of three generations of women, this time in Sweden and how the environment and attitudes of their community affected the way they dealt with life’s challenges as perceived by their daughters.

Here, a grand-daughter looks back and tries to understand her grandmother, digging into questions never previously asked, ( now demanding of her dying mother) wondering what had been behind the mask this fearful woman presented and how that might have affected her own mother, set against a history of people living on the border of Sweden and Norway from the late 1800’s until to the present.

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

And finally the book I am reading now, the author’s debut novel, an autobiographical, philosophical novel on the human condition, said to have been written as an act of revenge against the women who came between the author and her long time partner Jean-Paul Satre.

The novel’s main character, Françoise, is based on de Beauvoir, and Pierre a thinly disguised Sartre. A younger woman, Xaviere, enters their lives as they form a ménage a trois. Xaviere is a mash-up of sisters Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz.

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Have you read any good novels by women in translation recently? Or any of the above?

Do any of those above interest you?

Buy Any One of these Books via Book Depository

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