The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

Today, I’ve got a Norwegian classic for you. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) came from the village in Vineyard, a village in the southern Norwegian province of Telemark. He was a prolific writer, publishing over 25 novels, including 1963’s The Ice Palace. I’m reviewing the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, which has been published in association with Peter Owen Publishers. Before I start on the novel itself, I must say that I think the cover image is gorgeous. It’s by Hsiao-Ron Cheng, a Taiwanese artist; if you like this picture, there’s more on her Instagram

Now, back to The Ice Palace. It’s the story of two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn. Siss is the leader in her school playground, the one whom all the other children gravitate towards. Unn is a recent arrival from another district, come to stay with her aunt (rumour has it, because she has been orphaned). Unn stands apart from all the others in the playground, but Siss is drawn to her nonetheless. It turns out that Unn would like to spend time with Siss after all, but will only do so if Siss visits her at home after school. Siss accepts the invitation. 

The scene where the two girls are sitting in Unn’s bedroom is remarkably powerful. Tension builds and builds, but so much remains elusive. In this passage, for example, Siss and Unn are looking at their reflections in a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. 

In that moment, a unique spark of something has ignited between Siss and Unn; the whole sequence is full of the raw sense of two children working out the shape of their new friendship in the moment. As the scene progresses, it appears that Unn would like to disclose a deep secret to Siss, something that she hasn’t felt able to say to anyone else. However, just as Unn begins to do so, Siss feels uncomfortable and asks to leave. 

The following morning, Unn (in the only chapter written from her viewpoint) feels that it would be too embarrassing to meet Siss again that day. Instead of going to school, Unn decides to explore the ice palace, a mysterious and beautiful structure which has been formed by a frozen waterfall. It’s there that Unn vanishes. 

The rest of the novel revolves primarily around Siss, and her response to a world without Unn. At first, Siss promises to think about Unn – and no one else – for as long as Unn is missing. However, that leaves Siss the isolated one in the playground. She needs to find a different way to be. In this aspect, The Ice Palace is a coming-of-age story. 

Vesaas’ book is also concerned with the interaction of place and people: Siss and Unn’s aunt as members of the village community; the different circles of belonging at school; people’s fascination with the ice palace. When a group of village men are out late searching for Unn at the waterfall, Vesaas makes clear that any mystery or beauty about the place is a product of its observers’ perception:

There is something secret here. [The men]  bring out what sorrows they may have and transfer them to this midnight play of light and suspicion of death. It makes things better, and through it they fool themselves into enchantment. They are dispersed in the angles of ice, the lanterns shoot transverse gleams, meeting the lights from other cracks and prisms – quite new beams are illuminated, just as quickly extinguished again for good. 

The prose, in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation, is a mixture of flowing sentences and jagged fragments. It helps turn what might seem on the surface to be a fairly straightforward novel into a sharper reading experience that stays long in the mind.

Book details 

The Ice Palace (1963) by Tarjei Vesaas, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan (1993); original pub. Peter Owen, this edition Penguin Modern Classics; 140 pages; paperback (review copy). 

Meet the 2018 MBIP Shadow Panel 

It’s almost that time of year again: Man Booker International Prize time. I’ll be reading and reviewing the longlist along with my fellow members of the shadow panel. However, there are some changes to our line-up this year. Our founder and chairman, Stu Allen, has stepped down from the panel, as have our shadowing companions Tony MessengerClare Rowland, and Grant Rintoul. It was a great pleasure to read and discuss books with them.

From last year’s shadow panel, that left me, Tony Malone, Bellezza and, and Lori Feathers. We needed some new panellists, and now we have them, so it’s time for some introductions. Here are the members of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shadow panel…

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Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a particular focus on German-language, Japanese and Korean fiction. He blogs at Tony’s Reading List, and his reviews have also appeared at Words Without Borders, Necessary Fiction, Shiny New Books and Asymptote. Based in Melbourne, he teaches ESL to prospective university students when he’s not reading and reviewing. He can also be found on Twitter @tony_malone

Lori Feathers lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-owner and book buyer for Interabang Books, an independent bookstore in Dallas. She is a freelance book critic and board member of the National Book Critics Circle. For the last two years she has served as a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award. Her recent reviews can be found @LoriFeathers

Bellezza (Meredith Smith) is a teacher from Chicago, Illinois, who has been writing Dolce Bellezza for twelve years and has hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for 11 years. Reading literature in translation has become a great passion, especially since the five years she has been a shadow juror for the IFFP and now the MBIP. Her Twitter name is @bellezzamjs

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer from the north of England, now based in the south. He has written about translated fiction for Words Without Borders, Shiny New Books, Strange Horizons, and We Love This Book. He blogs at David’s Book World and tweets as @David_Heb

Vivek Tejuja is a book blogger and reviewer from India and based in Mumbai. He loves to read books in Indian languages and translated editions of languages around the world (well, essentially world fiction, if that’s a thing). He also writes for Scroll.In and The Quint. He blogs at The Hungry Reader and tweets as @vivekisms. His first book, “So Now You Know”, a memoir of growing up gay in Mumbai in the 90s, is out in April 2018 by Penguin Random House.

Paul Fulcher is a Wimbledon, UK based fan of translated fiction, who contributes to the Mookse and Gripes blog and is active on Goodreads, where he moderates a MBI readers’ group. He is on the jury of the Republic of Consciousness. ess Prize (@prizeRofC), which rewards innovative fiction, including in translation, from small independent presses. His reviews can be found at @fulcherpaul and via his Goodreads page.

María José Navia
lives in Santiago, Chile. She has an M.A. in Humanities and Social Thought (NYU) and a PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies (Georgetown University). She is currently an Assistant Professor at Chile’s Catholic University. She is also a published author (one novel, two collections of short stories) and is in the process of translating Battleborn (by Claire Vaye Watkins) into Spanish. You can read one of her stories, in English, in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of World Literature Today. She blogs at Ticket de Cambio and her twitter name is @mjnavia

Naomi Morauf is a voracious reader and avid tweeter with a particular interest in translated and speculative fiction. She moved to London for her philosophy degree and fell predictably into its clutches, working in media analysis as a broadcast editor before moving into book publishing. A Creative Access alumna and active member of the Society of Young Publishers and BAME in Publishing, she is a regular at Post Apocalyptic Book Club and the Dark Societies series of events. She is currently reviewing submissions at Unsung Stories.

Oisin Harris lives in Canterbury, UK and is an editor-in-the-making with a Publishing MA from Kingston University and an English degree from Sussex University. He is an academic librarian, and a freelance editor and proofreader. He has written about Women in Translation, Book Histories and how they can affect Book Futures, as well as on Islam and Literature in the West. When not reading or writing he can be found on Twitter @literaryty

Frances Evangelista is an educator from the Washington DC area who has been blogging about books for over ten years at Nonsuch Book and chatting on Twitter about the same @nonsuchbook. She has participated in a variety of projects including a Man Booker Shadow Panel for the last three years, and is eager to spread her wings with this MBIP panel.

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That’s the shadow panel – now we just need the longlist! We’ll have to wait until 12 March for that. I’m looking forward to it. 

Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist 2018

Well, my plan to read the longlist of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses didn’t exactly work out. I am going to keep following the prize, though, so here is the shortlist, which was announced last night:

  • Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press).
  • Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefevbre, tr. Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives).
  • Darker with the Lights On by David Hayden (Little Island Press).
  • Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff (Charco Press).
  • Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoyevsky Wannabe).
  • We that are young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar). 

From what I’ve heard of the books, that is a very strong shortlist; certainly it’s full of books I want to read. Congratulations to all the authors and publishers! 

World Editions Dutch literature blog tour for Boekenweek 

Boekenweek is an annual celebration of Dutch literature which has been held in the Netherlands since 1932. To mark Boekenweek this year, the publisher World Editions has organised a blog tour for three Dutch authors: Renate Dorrestein, Esther Gerritsen, and Jaap Robben. I’ll be taking part on 15 March, with a review of Jaap Robben’s novel You Have Me to Love. However, the tour starts today, with a profile of Esther Gerritsen over at Books By Women. You can see the other stops on the blog tour in the poster below (click the image to enlarge).

The White City – Roma Tearne

This book was the January choice for the Ninja Book Club, which focuses on books from independent publishers. It was my first time reading Roma Tearne, and I was glad of the introduction. Sadly, the club’s online discussion had to be postponed, so I’ve put some thoughts on the book together here. 

Years after London began to freeze over, the ice is finally beginning to thaw. Our narrator, Hera, is prompted to recall the day that first day of snow, when her brother Aslam was arrested. Besides narrating the story of her family from then on, Hera tells how she fell in love with an older man named Raphael, private and standoffish though he could be. He’s left her now, but Hera still longs for Raphael; she even addresses him directly in her account, perhaps in the hope of finding him again. 

The White City is a novel of lives uprooted and families falling apart. Hera has never had the easiest of relationships with her Muslim parents, but Aslam’s arrest places  the family under even greater strain. They’re not allowed to see or speak to him, and are given only vague information as to why he has been arrested. Raphael has an analogous tale to tell of his life prior to the UK, which is revealed (to Hera and the reader) midway through the novel. 

Aslam and Raphael become displaced in their own ways – as indeed did Hera’s family when they moved countries, and as does Hera herself over time. There’s a certain nebulous quality to Tearne’s prose when she’s writing about Raphael’s old life or Aslam’s arrest, which heightens that sense of dislocation. The thawing London is itself full of vivid images, which round out a sensitive portrait of places and lives. 

Book details 

The White City (2017) by Roma Tearne, Aardvark Bureau, 256 pages, hardback (personal copy). 

In the Absence of Absalon – Simon Okotie

This book is the sequel to Simon Okotie’s 2012 debut Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, which I haven’t read. I’m reading the second novel by itself because it’s longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, and it seems fine as an entry point. The previous book concerned a detective named Marguerite who was searching for Harold Absalon (“the Mayor’s transport advisor,” according to In the Absence). Now Marguerite has also gone missing, and we follow an unnamed investigator who is looking for him. 

In the Absence of Absalon begins with the detective outside a townhouse belonging to one Richard Knox, a colleague of Harold Absalon’s. This place is critical to our man’s investigation, but he’s taking his time over going in. He has a lot on his mind, or at least his thoughts are related in great detail. For example, here he’s placed a foot on the first step up to the house, and is thinking about taking a key from his trouser pocket:

What he realised, as he lifted the heel of the foot that he’d placed upon that step, was that he could not have known that placing his foot in this position would have tightened the aperture and interior of the pocket in question to the extent that it had. Further evidence had, in short, become known to him during the course of his action, evidence to suggest that the main advantage of it, which was to reduce the distance between his right hand and the equivalent trouser pocket, may, in fact, be outweighed by the main disadvantage… 

That sentence goes on for almost as long again. I want to give you some idea of what the prose is like (I understand that the first book is similar), because you really have to give yourself over to what the novel is doing in order to appreciate it. It’s like an extreme close-up of thought over action; we’re at 92 pages (almost halfway through) before the detective actually takes his keys out of his pocket.

Once I’d got used to the rhythms of In the Absence, I found the experience highly enjoyable. The detective ponders such topics as the appropriateness of wearing a wetsuit for a business transaction, or the tendency of people in households with more than one telephone to still refer to ‘the phone’, singular. Reading the book made me think of the little notions that flash through one’s mind in an instant, barely registered; this is like having those notions brought out for full consideration. 

But In the Absence is still a detective novel, and there is indeed a mystery to be solved. Alongside the novel’s main third-person account are footnotes written in first-person by someone (the detective? our unknown narrator?) who has insinuated his way into Harold Absalon’s job and started an affair with Absalon’s wife, Isobel. And the detective’s investigation becomes more pressing when he sees Isobel Absalon through the window of the townhouse. I feel that I’ve been able to piece together an idea of what was going on. In any case, what a powerful moment of ‘decompression’ there is at the end when both reader and narrator stop and look around. Now I’d like to go back and read Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? to see if I’m right about everything, and if it’s as good as the sequel.

Book details 

In the Absence of Absalon (2017) by Simon Okotie, Salt Publishing, 196 pages, paperback (review copy). 

My Sweet Orange Tree – José Mauro de Vasconcelos

According to the press release, My Sweet Orange Tree has never been out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968. It’s a worldwide bestseller, having been translated into 19 languages… but it has been out of print in English for over 40 years, until this new translation by Alison Entrekin, published by Pushkin Press. 

My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical novel, based on José Mauro de Vasconcelos’ childhood in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The book introduces us to Zezé, a precocious five-year-old with a tendency to play pranks on others, which often leads to him being beaten. He’ll tell others that he has the devil in him and should never have been born, yet he has charm and kindness to match his cheek. 

Zezé’s family struggles to get by: there are seven siblings to provide for, but Father is out of a job, so Mother has to work as much as she can at the factory. It means there are no presents waiting this Christmas in the shoes that Zezé has left outside his bedroom door. “Having a poor father is awful!” he blurts out, not realising that his father is right there to hear him. This leaves Zezé unable to act:

I felt like racing down the street and clinging to Father’s legs, crying. Telling him I’d been mean – really, really mean. But I just stood there, not knowing what to do. I had to sit on the bed. And from there I stared at my shoes, in the same corner, as empty as could be. As empty as my heart, careening out of control. 

But one of the things that’s so charming about Zezé is that he always has a plan. In this case, he decides to head out with his shoe-shine tin, to see if he can earn enough money to buy his father a gift. 

Zezé also has a broad imagination to match his resourcefulness. When the family moves house, Zezé claims a sweet-orange tree in the garden for himself. He names it Pinkie, imagines he can hear it talk, and whiles away hours riding in its branches with Tom Mix and other movie cowboys of the day. 

But friendship in the real world becomes increasingly important to Zezé. There are some memorable scenes as he becomes the helper of a man who visits the neighbourhood once a week to sing the latest popular songs and sell brochures of lyrics. Most important of all to Zezé, though, is his secret friendship with Manuel Valadares, a Portuguese with the finest car in the area. Time spent with him becomes an alternative to Zezé’s family life, a relationship that’s vivid on the page. 

Now that I’ve read My Sweet Orange Tree, I can absolutely see why this book is so beloved. Zezé is such a charming character, and there are some truly powerful moments. I’m glad to have had the chance to read this book, and warmly recommend it to you.

Book details

My Sweet Orange Tree (1968) by José Mauro de Vasconcelos, tr. Alison Entrekin (2018), Pushkin Press, 192 pages, hardback (proof copy provided for review). 

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

Some book recommendations from 2017

2017 was a year of ups and downs. With my reviewing hat on, I was especially pleased to make my debut at Minor Literature[s]. But I can’t escape the fact that this year was structured around illness as I’d never experienced before. It didn’t exactly stop me from reading, but it did have certain subtle effects on my reading choices, how I engaged with books, that sort of thing.

So, 2017 was not a normal reading year. When I tried to put together my usual countdown of twelve, I wasn’t happy with it, couldn’t recommend everything wholeheartedly. Instead I’m going to stick to a few books which were first published this year. I’ve got three books written in English and two translated from Spanish. I’m listing them here in no particular order, but they’ve all given me the shiver up the spine that I get from my favourite fiction.

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman.  The claustrophobic tale of a young girl sent to an orphanage after losing her parents in a car crash. She barely has the language to describe her experiences, but her very individuality poses a threat to the other girls around her in the orphanage. The prose of Such Small Hands is beautifully – dangerously – fluid, as the mental worlds of its characters form and re-form. Probably the most intense piece of literature I read all year.

The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel. The story of how a German family is broken when forced to flee west in 1945, then heals itself in the years after the war. This is novel structured as photo album: whole lives narrated intermittently, each scene a moment of experience adding to a greater whole. Ziervogel explores themes of image and appearance, and the individual within the sweep of history, all with a wonderful openness to her writing. 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. Oh, how I love Jon McGregor’s way with words, his ability to bring out the mystery within the everyday. In this novel, he starts with the disappearance of a teenage girl, and builds up, layer by layer, an extraordinary portrait of a rural community. A new year begins with each chapter; some faces go, others stay. The disappearance becomes another part of local lore; only nature retains any true semblance of constancy. The resulting work is spellbinding.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell. A discovery from this year’s Man Booker International Prize shadowing. Amanda is dying in hospital (or some dark liminal space) and talks to David, a child who is not her own. With David’s help, Amanda sorts through her memories of holidays, her own daughter, and a tale told by David’s mother (whom Amanda met on holiday). Fever Dream constantly shifts between levels of reality; it’s a thrilling ride.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel. A portrait of a violent family relationship, in extreme close-up. When it’s clear he will gain custody of his sons, a father takes them from Kansas to New Mexico, promising that the three can be kids again. Life turns out to be very different, though. Magariel keeps the father-and-sons unit at the centre of view, which distorts how we see the novel’s world, and helps give the book its distinctive power.

There are my recommendations for 2017; I hope you find something that interests you. You can also check out my previous best-of-year posts: 2016201520142013201220112010; and 2009. I’ll see you next year!

A Vineyard in Andalusia – Maria Dueñas: a snapshot review

This is a perfect example of the right book coming at the right time. I was in the mood for a long and welcoming novel that could round off the evening. Maria Dueñas’ new book proved to be just that.

It’s 1861. Mauro Larrera is a Spaniard who has made his wealth as a silver miner in Mexico. As the novel begins, Larrera learns that his latest risky investment has collapsed, and he’s going to lose everything. He then has to find a way to get out of his predicament, while maintaining appearances. Mauro’s family and associates have their suggestions, but it seems clear from the outset that Larrera has it in mind to flee. 

Mauro borrows some money from a creditor he’d rather not cross, then sets off hoping to repeat his earlier success. Amidst various scrapes, he goes to Havana, then eventually finds himself back in Spain as the owner of a vineyard, and caught up in the complicated affairs of the family who owned it previously.

A Vineyard in Andalusia is a glorious yarn, almost every chapter adding a new twist to Larrera’s travails. It was also great fun to read in self-imposed instalments – there are plenty of cliffhangers. There are times when certain events happen ‘off-stage’ that I’d have loved to read rather than being told about them after. However,  this doesn’t detract from a highly enjoyable tale, narrated in the snappy prose of Nick Caistor’s and Lorenza García’s translation.

A version of this review was previously published as a thread on Twitter.

Book details

A Vineyard in Andalusia (2015) by Maria Dueñas, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (2017), Scribe Publications, 534 pages, paperback (review copy). 

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