Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

Man Booker International Prize 2017 long list #MBI2017

The Man Booker International Prize used to appear every two years and the authors nominated were not just writers in translation, they were from outside the UK and a nomination was for their body of work, not for one recently published book. That prize, for a translated work of fiction was called, the IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize).

Now the two have joined together, with the format being the same as the IFFP prize and the name Man Booker International.

The judges for 2017  are Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, translator Daniel Hahn; award-winning poet Helen Mort; Turkish author and academic Elif Shafak and Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe.

“Fiction in translation is flourishing: in these times when walls are being built, this explosion of brilliant ideas from around the world arriving into the English language feels more important than ever.” Nick Barley, Chair

Last year the prize was won by the South Korean author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith, for The Vegetarian.

MBI long list 2017

The 2017 longlist comprises 13 titles (from 126 submissions) translated into English from 11 languages: (summaries extracted from the Man Booker Prize website), the shortlist will be announced on April 20 and the winner on June 14th.

Title, Author (nationality), Translator

Compass by Mathias Enard (France), (tr. Charlotte Mandell) – As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran, and writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), (tr.Eliza Marciniak) – Wiola lives in a close-knit agricultural community in 1980s Poland. Wiola’s father was a deserter but now he is a taxidermist. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola must never enter the seamstresses’s ‘secret’ room. Wiola collects matchbox labels. Wiola is a good Catholic girl brought up with fables and nurtured on superstition. Wiola lives in a Poland both recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel) (tr.Jessica Cohen) – In a comedy club in a small Israeli town, an audience arrives expecting an evening of amusement and see a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling before their eyes. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell. Dovale Gee, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), (tr.David McKay) – Shortly before his death, Stefan Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain gave his grandson a set of notebooks containing detailed memories of his life. He grew up in poverty around 1900, the son of a struggling church painter who died young, and went to work in an iron foundry at 13. Afternoons with his father working on a church fresco were heaven; the iron foundry an inferno. During WW1, Urbain was on the front line confronting the invading Germans, haunted by events he can’t forget. War ends, he marries, then tragedy. Urbain recovers and like the obedient soldier he is, dutifully fulfils the expectations of family. Observations of a marriage with a sad secret at its heart, consolation found in art and painting.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (tr.Don Shaw) – Ingrid Barrøy is born on a family owned island, her father dreams of a jetty to connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – and a question Ingrid must never ask. Island life is hard, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), (tr.John Hodgson) – At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the main square of Constantinople, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy. Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, is charged with transporting heads to the capital – a task he relishes and performs with fervour. But as he travels through obscure and impoverished territories, he makes money from illicit side-shows, offering villagers the spectacle of death. The head of the rebellious Albanian governor would fetch a very high price.

Fish Have No Feet by Jon Kalman Stefansson (Iceland), (tr.Phil Roughton) – Keflavik: a town that has been called the darkest place in Iceland, surrounded by black lava fields, hemmed in by a sea that may not be fished. Its livelihood depends entirely on a U.S. military base, a conduit for American influences that shaped Icelandic culture and ethics from the 1950s to the dawn of the new millennium. It is to Keflavik that Ari, a writer and publisher, returns from Copenhagen at the behest of his dying father, two years after walking out on his wife and children. He is beset by memories of his youth, spent or misspent listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, fraternising with American servicemen – who are regarded by the locals with a mixture of admiration and contempt – and discovering girls. There is one girl in particular he could never forget – her fate has stayed with him all his life.

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), (tr.Carlos Rojas)  – With the Yi River on one side and the Balou Mountains on the other, the village of Explosion was founded a thousand years ago by refugees fleeing a volcanic eruption. But in the post-Mao era, the name takes on a new significance as the rural community grows explosively from a small village to a town to a city to a vast megalopolis. Behind this rapid expansion, three rival clans linked together by a web of ambition, madness and greed,  transform their hometown into a Babylon of modern times – an unrivalled urban superpower built on lies, sex and thievery.

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), (tr.Helen Stevenson) – 1970 in the People’s Republic of Congo, a Marxist-Leninist revolution is ushering in a new age. Over at the orphanage on the outskirts of Pointe-Noire where young Moses has grown up, the revolution has strengthened the reign of terror of Dieudonné Ngoulmoumako, the institution’s corrupt director. So Moses escapes to Pointe-Noire, where he finds a home with a larcenous band of Congolese Merry Men and among the Zairean prostitutes of the Trois-Cents quarter. But the authorities won’t leave Moses in peace, and intervene to chase both the Merry Men and the Trois-Cents girls out of town. All this injustice pushes poor Moses over the edge. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo? Or is he just losing his marbles?

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), (tr.Katy Derbyshire) – Bricks and Mortar is the story of a city’s sex trade in the former GDR, from 1989 to the present day, charting the development of the industry from prohibition to legality in the 20 years following the reunification of Germany. It focuses on the rise and fall of one man from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes to, ultimately, a man persecuted by those he once trusted. And other voices: women who work in prostitution, their clients, small-time gangsters, an ex-jockey searching for his drug-addict daughter, a businessman from the West, a girl forced into child prostitution, a detective, a pirate radio presenter…

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), (tr.Misha Hoekstra) – Sonja is an intelligent single woman in her 40s whose life lacks focus. The situation must change – but where to start? By learning to drive, perhaps. After all, how hard can it be? Very, as it turns out. Six months in, Sonja is still baffled by the basics and her instructor is eccentric. Sonja is also struggling with an acute case of vertigo, a sister who won’t talk to her, and a masseuse who is determined to solve her spiritual problems. Frenetic city life is a constant reminder that every man (and woman) is an island: she misses her rural childhood where ceilings were high and the sky was endless. Shifting gears is not proving easy.

Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), (tr. Nicholas de Lange) – Set in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, Judas is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale and a radical rethinking of the concept of treason. Shmuel, a young, idealistic student, is drawn to a strange house and its mysterious occupants within. As he starts to uncover the house’s tangled history, he reaches an understanding that harks back not only to the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, but also to the beginning of Jerusalem itself – to Christianity, to Judaism, to Judas.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), (tr.Megan McDowell) – A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.

*******

 I haven’t read any of these titles, I’m naturally drawn towards the French translations, since they give me an idea of what people here are reading and enjoying, Black Moses sounds like an entertaining read.
Eileen Battersby has written an excellent article discussing the nominations, giving her opinion on them and a few notable omissions, I’ll be rereading her views before deciding what I might read and checking out the Shadow Panel reviews, a group of bloggers who will be reading the list and making their own conclusions on a short list and winner, from the 13 chosen here.
Further Reading:

To buy any of the books listed Click Here

10 Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading in 2017, Mirrors, Blooms, Wonder, War, Not Nothing

I’m not really into making reading lists, but I do make lots of reading piles of books I think I might read next, which often then get changed, as I’ll read a great review of a book I have on the shelf and be convinced I have to read it sooner, now it’s come to my attention.

So here are five books on my pile at the moment and five waiting on my kindle to start the year with, though don’t be surprised if you find me reading and reviewing something entirely different!

Five From The Shelf

2017-reads

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka) – Last year I read her second novel What Lies Between Us and it made my top 5 fiction reads and this one is her debut which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dublin Impac Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. It’s about two families on either side of the conflict during the long civil war, told though the eyes of the eldest daughter of each family.

cereusCereus Blooms at Night, Shani Mootoo (Trinidad) – Part of my fascination with reading stories by women from the Caribbean culture, this one came to my attention last year and is said to be a fascinating narrative propelled by vivdly drawn characters, set on a fictional island, a mystery about a reclusive old woman accused of murder.

sense-of-wonderA Sense of Wonder, The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane, & the Ordinary, edited by Brian Doyle– a beautiful Christmas gift from a dear friend containing an anthology of powerful stories, essays and reflections from some of the world’s best writers including Pico Iyer, Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Helen Garner, Cynthia Ozick

foundlings-warThe Founding’s War, Michel Déon (France) #RIP – the French writer who lived in Ireland, with over 50 novels, plays and essays published, just passed away Dec 28 at the age of 97 years. Having read his novel The Foundling Boy, translated into English by Gallic Books, I’m going to read the sequel A Foundling’s War as a tribute to his lifetime of considerable achievement.

do-not-sayDo Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien (Canada/China) – no need to say much about this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker 2016 and I would say it was The People’s Choice, the book most people loved most from the list and one I picked to read when the longlist came out. Secrets from the revolution, a pianist and a composer, intimate and political.

5 on the Kindle

three-daughters-of-eveThree Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak (Turkey) – I’ve been a fan of Rumi scholar Elif Shafak since she wrote The Forty Rules of Love and have since read The Bastard of IstanbulHonour and her essay The Happiness of Blond People – A Personal Meditation on the Dangers of Identity so I’m looking forward to her latest which she says tackles the confusion of Turkey, faith and God from Turkey to Oxford and back.

exit-westExit West, Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) – literary novel of new love in a time of war which causes them to immigrate when the world is in crisis – by a renowned author, with a couple of rave reviews, time to get on the band wagon, a timely novel.

the-good-peopleThe Good People, Hannah Kent (Australia/Ireland) – well I missed Burial Rites, her debut historical novel set in Iceland, about a woman who was executed, so I’m going for her second novel, this one set in Country Kerry, Ireland in 1825 in a time of traditions and superstitions surrounding those born a little different, and women who are vilified for having anything to do with them. I hope it’s as good as her debut!

breaking-connectionsBreaking Connections, Albert Wendt (Samoa) – Reading around the world brings me down under to leading Pacific writer Albert Wendt’s new novel by the excellent Huia Publishers. A group whose members refer to themselves as the Tribe, mainly Polynesian grow up together, rise from poverty and become successful professionals, bound by love and fierce loyalty. When one of them is killed, they face an ensuing crisis.

train-to-pakistanTrain to PakistanKhushwant Singh (Pakistan/India) – a classic set in the partition, that was recommended me to me last year after reading Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup.

 

 

Plenty to choose from there, I hope you are looking forward to some exciting reads to start the new year as well.

Let me know what you’re looking forward to!

Click Here to Buy A Novel via Book Depository

Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun tr.Jung Yewon

oe-hundred-shadowsEthereal, dream-like, accepting of their fate. South Korean working class literature.

Two young people work in an electronics market and slowly develop a friendship.

We meet Eungyo as she is following her shadow, causing her to become separated from the group she is with. Mujae follows her and stops her. Shadows rise and seem to lure one to follow it, something that others try to prevent, for it feels death-like.

Although it is never explained the constant mention of human shadows and their various behaviours provoke the reader’s imagination to ascribe meaning. Ill health and approaching death cause it to rise, and perhaps thoughts, reaching the limit of what one is able to endure. One shouldn’t follow it.

Their bond is formed as the environment within which they work is threatened with demolition. There is a subtle interdependency between the market traders, repairing and selling electronics, so when people who have worked there for years suddenly disappear, it unsettles the tenants.

Rumours and false media reports hasten their demise. They hold onto rituals, sharing soup, drinking rice wine, telling stories.

Do you know what a slum is, Eungyo?
Something to do with being poor?
I looked it up in a dictionary.
What did it say?
An area in a city where poor people live. Mujae looked at me. They say the area around here is a slum.
Who?
The papers, and people.
Slum?
It’s a little odd, isn’t it?
It is odd.
Slum.
Slum.
We sat there repeating the word for a while, and then I said, I’ve heard the word, of course, but I’d never thought of this place as a slum.

This short novella witnesses the various encounters between these two, the stories they recount which often include shadows they’ve witnessed, the simple soups they consume, the songs they sing. Shadows, soup, songs, survival.

The novel was inspired by the effect on ordinary working class people affected by Korea’s eviction-centred redevelopment policies, where the government removed residents and vendors by intimidation and force. Redevelopment involved a complex web of often obscure relationships between corporations and government, wealthy landowners and hired thugs, low-income tenants and the police. The novella provides a gentle, poetic insight into those marginalised by those policies.

hwang-jung-eunHwang Jungeun’s debut novel, translated by Jung Yewon was a critical and commercial success in South Korea with its mix of oblique fantasy, hard-edge social critique, and offbeat romance.

“My home was described in the news as ‘a slum’. This was an outside view; I wrote my novel to show it from the inside.”

It won the prestigious Hankook Ilbo Literary Award and the Korean Booksellers’ Award. Mentioned by Han Kang, who won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian as South Korea’s rising literary star.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of One Hundred Shadows

Note: This novel was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher, Tilted Axis as an e-book.

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

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The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein #WITMonth

ItalyOn the day when the nation is shocked and grieving after a devastating earthquake, that has destroyed entire villages and resulted in a significant loss of life, I don’t know how appropriate it is to share their literature, perhaps in the case of this particular novel, it serves to put things in perspective.

For while the protagonist of this novel may have felt her world was coming to an end, knowing how quickly and without warning life and home can be snatched away, might prompt us get over the more indulgent grievances of the heart.

Days of AbandonmentA national bestseller for almost an entire year, The Days of Abandonment shocked and captivated its Italian public when first published.

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”

Like an orchestrated composition that begins with a quiet, solo voice and rises to a crescendo with the addition of more instruments, Ferrante’s novel and its female character move from reasonable, melodic harmony to loud, discordant cacophony.

“I listened to him attentively, I contradicted him calmly, I didn’t ask him questions of any kind nor did I dictate ultimatums, I tried only to convince him that he could always count on me. But I have to admit that, behind that appearance, a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me.”

Like the stages of grief, The Days of Abandonment charts the stages of decline following a lost love, beginning with the irony of a love more fierce than it was when it was present, then the deterioration, as the realisation and reality of life without it comes to pass for this mother of two children, cooped up in her apartment one hot August, with only the sad figure of a morose cellist living downstairs to observe her descent.

The abandoned woman acts terribly reasonably, only to deteriorate into desperate disillusionment. Like madness descending, the loss of love and the feeling of abandonment rages through the various emotions like a tempest, no person or animal immune to its violent, destructive force.

“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

It is shocking in how far the madness delves and astounding as it reaches a turning point and she is able slowly to perceive herself and the illusion of what she thought she had, for what it really was.

“It was really true, there was no longer anything about him that could interest me. He wasn’t even a fragment of the past, he was only a stain, like the print of a hand left years ago on a wall.”

Elena Ferrante observes the minutiae of human emotion and suffering, the obstinacy of a grasping, possessive love, the effect of our behaviour on those around us and the resilience of the human spirit.

Exhausting, terrifying, ferocious, we are both beast and beauty.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, whose true identity remains a mystery, author of the four novels in the Neapolitan tetralogy My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The Days of Abandonment was the first of her novels to be translated into English by Europa Editions in 2005.

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