AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

The Melting by Lize Spit (tr. Kristen Gehrman)

This is a very dark novel, be warned. In the present day, Eva accepts an invitation from her childhood friend Pim to return to the farming village where they grew up. Partly this is to celebrate the opening of a new automated milking station, but it’s also to remember Pim’s brother Jan, who would now be aged 30.

Eva, Pim and their friend Laurens were the only children in their school year born in 1988 – they stuck together and called themselves the Three Musketeers. One strand of The Melting takes place in 2002, when the boys are starting to discover girls and Eva has to redefine her place in the trio. The other strand unfolds as Eva goes from Brussels to her old village. Among other things, we find out why Eva took a large block of ice with her. 

Belgian author Lize Spit’s debut novel gives up its secrets gradually. It becomes an intriguing thriller with a capacity to shock and disturb. 

Published by Picador.

MacLehose Press: Hell and High Water by Christian Unge

Christian Unge is a hospital doctor in Stockholm, a background that informs his debut thriller. Unge’s protagonist is Tekla Berg, an emergency medic who feels burdened with her photographic memory. She’s introduced to us in a gripping scene where she is juggling patients. Then she is tasked with treating a young man who has 85% burns. The police think he’s a terrorist… but Tekla thinks she recognises her brother. 

The story that unfolds in Hell and High Water (translated from Swedish by George Goulding and Sarah de Senarclens) encompasses the Uzbek mafia and hospital bureaucracy amongst other things, a balancing act that Unge handles well. What I particularly like is that, for everywhere the plot goes, it ultimately comes back to a fundamental theme, that of family. All of that makes Hell and High Water an enjoyable debut. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Faber Editions: Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Faber & Faber have recently launched a new series called Faber Editions, which reissues some of their backlist titles with new introductions, to “spotlight radical literary voices from history”. The first book in the series is this short novel by Rachel Ingalls (1940-2019), an American writer who lived in the UK from 1965. Mrs Caliban was her second novel, originally published in 1982. 

We meet Dorothy Caliban, a Californian housewife drifting through life: her young son has died, and her husband Fred is unfaithful. The setting underlines this sense of stasis: it feels as though this could be the 1950s as easily as the 1980s.

Dorothy hears a radio item about a large sea creature, dubbed ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, which has escaped from a research institute having killed two employees. It’s a hint of strangeness amid a seemingly ordinary tale. Then the creature turns up on Dorothy’s doorstep:

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

I have to credit Irenosen Okojie for the observation in her foreword that Ingalls makes this seem unremarkable, but the effect really is striking in context. Dorothy embarks on a relationship with the sea creature (who prefers to be called Larry). They can keep it a secret because there are certain rooms in the house where Fred doesn’t go – but they don’t want to stay indoors forever. 

Ingalls maintains a delicate balance between the real and unreal throughout Mrs Caliban. The fact that Larry is non-human allows things to be different for Dorothy: she can take charge of her life, and he challenges the model of masculinity represented by Fred. There is something of a fable about this book, but really it has an atmosphere all its own.

Red Circle Minis 4 and 5: Japanese fiction in English

My post today is about a couple of titles in the Red Circle Minis series: short Japanese books that have been translated and published in English first. I wrote about the first three Red Circle Minis here, and now it’s on to the next two…

The Refugees’ Daughter by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Emily Balistrieri

A few years ago, young Aimi thought the world’s problems only happened elsewhere. But now catastrophe has caught up, and she and her family are refugees. They are due to travel through the gate, a mysterious structure leading to who-knows-where – but they do know that soldiers can’t follow them, so it’s worth the risk. ⁣

A lot of this story’s atmosphere comes from its fantastical elements: the strange, narrowing white tunnels of the gate, or the voice of Aimi’s friend Yusune, who’s broadcasting to her having already passed through. But there’s also an intriguing question at the heart of ‘The Refugees’ Daughter’, which is who might hold the key to moving forward in a time of collapse. Ichikawa looks for an alternative to military might, and his answer is quite inspiring. ⁣

The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Meredith McKinney

Kanji Hanawa wrote one of the previous stories in this series: ‘Backlight’, a sharp look at how society may treat people who fall through its cracks. ‘The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro’ is something rather different, a historical tale about a rather ordinary nobleman. ⁣

Asunaro will inherit his father’s title one day (his nickname means ‘Someday-soon’), but there’s nothing remarkable about him. Perhaps his most notable trait is an eye for the ladies at court. Not that he’s much good with them: one failed attempt at wooing haunts him throughout his life. ⁣

This is an unusual story, in that it avoids the sort of colourful historical figure you might expect to see. Yet it’s engaging nonetheless, as it brings a certain gravity to the life of an apparently mundane individual. ⁣

Henningham Family Press: The Tomb Guardians by Paul Griffiths

Henningham Family Press and Paul Griffiths were two of my favourite discoveries last year, and now here’s another beautifully produced book by the author of Mr. Beethoven. I was looking forward to The Tomb Guardians, but even so I wasn’t prepared for it. 

When I look at my most favourite novels, it’s not about subject matter or subgenre – it’s about the reaction I have to reading them. The writing somehow bypasses the rational brain and affects me at a more fundamental level. The Tomb Guardians is that sort of novel. 

Two conversations intertwine within the book. The first (in italics) is between the guardians of Christ’s tomb. They’ve woken up to find that the stone has been moved, the tomb is empty, and one of their number has also vanished. The guardians can’t work out exactly how all this happened, but they know they can’t admit to having been asleep. They have to concoct a plausible explanation that won’t land them in trouble. 

In the present day, a lecturer is preparing a talk on the ‘sleeping grave guard’ paintings by the 16th-century German artist Bernhard Strigel [example], which are reproduced in the book as colour plates). The lecturer feels the talk is “falling apart”, and discusses it with a friend. The key question occupying the lecturer is: why doesn’t Strigel’s placid depiction of the guards reflect the Gospel of Matthew? The lecturer has some ideas about this: what if the figures are meant to reflect Strigel’s contemporary reality rather than the biblical one? What if they’re not meant to be the guardians of Christ’s tomb at all? 

Both conversations then revolve around a fundamental absence of knowledge, though approached from opposite directions. The guardians are constructing a falsehood to explain away the empty tomb. The lecturer and friend are reaching for a truth about Strigel’s paintings that they’ll never fully grasp. 

Maybe I’ve made The Tomb Guardians sound heavy so far, but actually it wears its seriousness lightly. The book is at its most playful when the conversations seem to talk to each other:

What?

It’s this lecture.

Yes.

I just don’t like it.

It’s falling apart on me.

There’s a lot I don’t like, beginning with that dirty great rock having shifted on its own-i-o.

That’s happened before.

He shouldn’t have gone.

Not like this. The whole point it’s…. Never mind.

No, he shouldn’t have gone.

It’s also interesting to see how the balance of the novel changes. The guardians feel dominant at the beginning, racing ahead to work their story out as the lecturer is hesitantly forming questions. Then the lecturer’s strand takes control, forging ahead with art-historical exploration, at times almost seeming as though it might be the guardians’ undoing. 

The ending of The Tomb Guardians has the same sudden power as that of Convenience Store Woman, as we experience something of what is at stake for the characters. Griffiths’ novel doesn’t resolve, but stays vividly on the knife-edge of uncertainty. This undermines everything the lecturer has worked towards:

These four were my life. For years. And still there was so much I wanted to say to them. If they’d been here, I could have done that – never mind that they wouldn’t have been able to respond. I could have said they’re the only human beings right there, at exactly the right moment, and they’re missing the event. I could have said their sleep is an admonishment to us, who also sleep through so much….

But the lecturer’s friend sees how it is: you have to go on from where you are, even if there is doubt. For the guardians, meanwhile, there is possibility in the uncertainty as we leave them, and this opens the book up again just as we close it. 

Italica Press: Agony by Federico De Roberto

I have to thank its translator, Andrew Edwards, for introducing me to this book, the second entry in Italica Press’ Italian Crime Writers series. Agony was originally published in 1897, and is described here as the first Sicilian detective procedural. 

October 1894, Lake Geneva: the beautiful Countess Fiorenza d’Arda has been found dead. To the examining magistrate, François Ferpierre, it appears clear that the Countess shot herself. But poet Robert Vérod takes one look at the body and cries murder, accusing the Countess’s lover Prince Alexi Zakunin – an exiled Russian revolutionary – of being complicit. 

An initial round of interviews yields contradictory accounts that bear further investigation. Ferpierre looks into other sources, including the Countess’s diary. His ideas about what happened and why evolve as he goes. Agony‘s investigation is like a dance, going back and forth between different possibilities. I found the book highly intriguing, and I’m glad to have read it. 

Violeta among the Stars by Dulce Maria Cardoso: Women in Translation Month

At the start of this novel, Violeta has accidentally driven off the road during a storm. Her car rolled down an embankment, and now she’s hanging upside down:

[…] the rain beats down on the car roof with a noise that should scare me, it thickens the car windows, doubles them, thousands of burst drops against the glass, watery webs torn apart by the wind, gusts of wind reaching speeds of up to, I defy the stormy night,

I drive through the darkness

my hand blindly seeking a voice that will calm the storm, lightning, a trace of light from the beginning, in the beginning there was only light, in the beginning there was only light and we were already blinded forever, 

Translation from Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

This is what Violeta’s narration is like: fragmented, no full stops, frequent interjections, and often repeated phrases. It’s a superb translation by Gurría-Quintara, that throws you into the chaos of Violeta’s mind as she thinks over her life, looping back again and again. 

Violeta sells hair-removal products: she describes body hair as her enemy (partly because she’s ill at ease with her own body). On the particular day of her accident, Violeta had sold her deceased parents’ home, which didn’t go down well with her daughter Dora. As Violeta’s recollections go further back, we gain more context for her relationship with Dora, and see how her parents ended up on the wrong side of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. 

By novel’s end, Violeta is facing up to the inevitable, and we’ve borne witness to a multifaceted view of her character and life. Cardoso’s telling makes Violeta seem a whole person to us, good points and bad. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon: Women in Translation Month

When it comes to an event like Women in Translation Month, I usually pick out a few titles in advance that I want to read. But I also like to leave some room for serendipity, like this Israeli novel. I found it while searching through a box of books, had no memory of it… Then I read the blurb, and wanted to read it straight away. 

(I’ve since worked out that I got it through an old Asymptote Book Club subscription.)

It’s supposed to be the day of Marie’s and Matti’s wedding, but there’s a problem: Margie has locked herself in her room, and is repeating “Not getting married” over and over again. The novel focuses on the couple’s families and their attempts to get through to Margie. 

There’s a wry sense of humour throughout Matalon’s book, and the imagery is often striking. For example, this is from the first couple of pages:

And so they simply continued to stare at the shut door with its old-fashioned dark wood veneer, seemingly anticipating a thawing, a softening, miraculous melting–if not of the bride then at least of the door–and hoping for something further: a continuation of the sentence [i.e. “Not gettiing married”], an idea or a word that might emerge through the door like the wet head of a newborn closely followed by the body itself sliding out.

Translation from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I found that comparison to a newborn baby quite startling, and a little uncomfortable, to imagine in context. The novel’s characters are similarly caught off-guard: the only real clue Margie gives them to her state of mind is a section of Lea Goldberg’s poem ‘The Prodigal Son’, adapted to become ‘The Prodigal Daughter’.

And the Bride Closed the Door was Ronit Matalon’s last novel, winning the Brenner Prize the day before the author died in 2017. Reading around a bit, it seems clear that there are reflections on Israeli society in the novel that I wouldn’t have picked up on. Even without that, I found Matalon’s book an intriguing and entertaining character portrait.

Published by New Vessel Press.

Betimes Books: Hear Us Fade by David Hogan

Hear Us Fade is set in California over the course of a single day in June 2029. It’s a time of change: Billy ‘the Goat’ Wharton is set to be the last person in the USA to face the death penalty. Two activists, Rex Nightly and Urban McChen, are reluctantly torturing the Governor of California to get him to call off the execution. But they go too far – which puts Rex in an awkward position when his Lieutenant Governor wife announces that she’s going to start recall proceedings and run for governor herself.

Meanwhile, Billy Wharton – who insists that he was coerced into confessing to murder – seizes the opportunity to escape from his prison van, and gets caught up in events that spiral out of his control. In the background (though not necessarily staying there) are technological change, environmental disaster, and social upheaval. Hear Us Fade is a dark comedy that turns into a sobering look at where current trends might lead to.

Published by Betimes Books.

Bellevue by Ivana Dobrakovová: Women in Translation Month

The book and the reading both start out innocuously enough: Blanka, a young Slovak woman, takes a summer job in Marseille, at the Bellevue centre for people with physical disabilities. Her main reason for applying is the chance to practise her French in an immersive environment. She doesn’t really seem to have considered the work involved, and that’s where her problems start. 

The environment of Bellevue is indeed immersive, but not in the way Blanka may have been thinking. She really struggles to be around the disabled people at the centre, to cope with people unable to look after themselves. To an extent, she struggles to see them as people. 

There are gradual signs that Blanka’s mental health is being affected: a panic attack, then this… 

…deep inside I had always known it, sensed it, but now I could suddenly give it a name, was able to articulate it, the words now pounded right in my chest, we all hate each other, suddenly nothing but this truth, this knowledge, or rather the realisation that there’s nothing but hatred in this world, that to grow up means to understand and accept all the world’s hatred directed at every single person, and therefore also at me.

Translation from Slovak by Julia & Peter Sherwood

As the novel goes on, we come to understand more of Blanka’s background, and see her continue to unravel. This is particularly harrowing because Blanka doesn’t articulate what is happening to her. Dobrakovová (in the Sherwoods’ superb translation) shows it through the changing shape of Blanka’s language: her narration frays along with her mental state. We go directly to the heart of Blanka’s experience, and the effect is powerful. 

Published by Jantar Publishing.

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