My next stop on this year’s International Booker journey is Norway, where we meet Johanna. She’s estranged from her family, having left behind them and their plans for her legal career, to make a life as an artist in the US. They didn’t invite her to her father’s funeral, and she didn’t think of going. Now on the verge of sixty, Johanna has returned to Oslo after almost thirty years, for a retrospective of her work.
Johanna’s thoughts frequently turn to her remaining family: her mother and her sister Ruth. She’s tried calling them, with no answer. Johanna doesn’t even know if her mother is alive, and speculates intensely over what life might be like for her now, what she might be thinking:
Perhaps Mum gets upset merely on hearing my name and so everyone around her avoids saying it. Perhaps Mum feels uneasy every time she hears the name even if it’s just some random Johanna, a skier or a newsreader, the name is mentioned and Mum shudders, Mum is lucky that not many people are called Johanna. Perhaps Mum has succeeded in suppressing unpleasant thoughts about me in her everyday life – she has years of practice – that but then it pops up in a random interviewee on the television whose name is Johanna…
translation from norwegian by Charlotte barslund
That repetition, the rhythm of the translation, all underline Johanna’s level of preoccupation. She has found out her mother’s address, and towards the start of the novel I wanted to say to her: just go there and make contact – whatever has happened, it’s surely better to face it than stay in this cycle of speculation.
Well, that was before Johanna started lurking in her car outside her mother’s home. She finds out that her mother is indeed alive, but doesn’t stop wondering about her. Then, without ever changing the essential tone of the narration, Hjorth transforms our perception of Johanna from a somewhat sympathetic character to one who really isn’t. We start to see why Johanna’s family might want nothing to do with her.
As a character study, I found Is Mother Dead powerful stuff. It’s also an examination of familial relations at a high pitch. Hjorth’s novel has set the standard for the rest of the International Booker longlist, as far as I’m concerned.
If 2022 has taught me anything with regard to reading, it’s that I shouldn’t bother with firm reading plans! Over the year, I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get into my usual reading routine. I also had a sense that some of my reading cornerstones (such as the Goldsmiths Prize) weren’t chiming with me as they usually did. Whether that’s just a blip or a broader change in my taste, I’ll gain a better idea next year.
Whatever the case, I still read some grand books this year. Here is my usual informal countdown of the dozen that have flourished most in my mind:
12. Faces in the Crowd (2011) by Valeria Luiselli Translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (2014)
My chance to catch up on a book I’ve long wanted to read, and it was worth the wait. A young woman’s life in Mexico City contrasts with her old life in New York, and with the novel she’s writing, and the life of the poet she’s writing about… Different, blurred layers of reality make this such a rush to read.
11. Standing Heavy (2014) by GauZ’ Translated from French by Frank Wynne (2022)
A novel about the changing experiences of Ivorian security guards in Paris, Standing Heavy is intriguingly pared back in its form. Three story-chapters capture the movement of history around the characters, and more fragmented observations deepen one’s sense of the book’s world. This is a short novel with a lot to say.
This was a fine example of how a novel’s brevity can bring a distinctive atmosphere to familiar subject matter. Appanah focuses on a young man who’s been apprehended after a road crash, as well as his sister and mother – all three of them ill at ease with the world. This novel has an intensity that might easily be diluted in a longer work.
9. The Proof (1988) and The Third Lie (1991) by Ágota Kristóf Translated from French by David Watson (1991) and Marc Romano (1996)
These two novels follow on from Kristóf’s The Notebook: I read them together, and they belong together here. Kristóf’s trilogy tells of two brothers displaced by war. There’s great trauma in the background, but emotions are kept distant. Geography and time are also flattened out, adding to the feeling of being trapped. The trilogy progressively undermines any sense of understanding the truth of what happened to the brothers, and therein lies its power for me.
8. Love (1997) by Hanne Ørstavik Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken (2018)
This novel is about a mother and son who live in the same space yet still in their own worlds. That theme is strikingly reflected in the writing, as the two characters’ stories merge into and out of each other repeatedly. Often, the pair seem closest emotionally when they’re separated physically. The ending is sharp and poignant.
7. The Sons of Red Lake (2008) by Zhou Daxin Translated from Chinese by Thomas Bray and Haiwang Yuan (2022)
Breaking the run of short, spare novels is a longer one that I enjoyed taking my time over. A woman returns to her childhood village, falls back in love with her childhood sweetheart, and finds her fortunes changing for better and worse. Zhou’s novel explores the effects of tourism and the temptations of power. I found it engrossing.
Some of the best writing I read all year was in this book. It’s a novel following the life of an African American woman from Chicago. She has aspirations for herself, but the reality turns out to be rather mixed. In the end, I found hope in Maud Martha, as its snapshot structure opened up possibilities beyond the final page.
5. Life Ceremony (2019) by Sayaka Murata Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2022)
I’m not sure that anyone combines the innocuous and strange quite like Sayaka Murata. This story collection is typically striking, using larger-than-life situations to explore basic questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. Perhaps most of all, Murata puts her readers in the position of her characters, so we see them differently as a result.
4. Mothers Don’t (2019) by Katixa Agirre Translated from Basque by Kristin Addis (2022)
Few books that I read this year made such an immediate impression as this one. Agirre’s narrator tries to understand why another woman killed her children, while trying to come to terms with her own feelings about motherhood. Contradictions abound and nothing is reconciled, and this is what drives the novel – not to mention its vivid prose.
Russell Hoban was my discovery of the year, someone I know I’ll read again. Turtle Diary is the story of two lonely characters linked only by a wish to set free the sea turtles at London Zoo. I really appreciated the ambivalence of Hoban’s novel, the way that saving the turtles in itself isn’t enough to fill the hole in the characters’ lives. I simply haven’t read anything quite like this book before.
I loved this novel exploring the ramifications of new technology. Morgan imagines the development of a matter transporter and, step by step, puts humanity’s relationship with it under scrutiny. What is perhaps most chilling is the way that everything just trundles on, away from the people actually experiencing this technology. Appliance provides a welcome space for reflection.
1. Cursed Bunny (2021) by Bora Chung Translated from Korean by Anton Hur (2021)
At the top of the tree this year is a story collection that grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Some of the stories are strange and creepy, others more like fairy tales. Many are built around powerful metaphors that deepen the intensity of the fiction. It’s all held together by Chung’s distinctive voice, in that wonderful translation by Anton Hur. I look forward to reading more of Chung’s work in the future.
Love was originally published back in 1997, and it’s very much a story of times when people didn’t tend to have communication on tap in their pockets. We meet single mother Vibeke and her son Jon, whose ninth birthday is tomorrow. Both are preoccupied with their own thoughts.
The structure of Love is striking: within each chapter, the perspective shifts between Vibeke and Jon, but without scene breaks, so their stories merge into and out of each other. This reflects how they live alongside each other: together but separate. It feels as though, even if they were in the same place, they would still be apart.
For their own reasons, both characters go out. Jon assumes Vibeke must be buying ingredients for for a birthday cake, but she has a work colleague on her mind. Over the course of the evening, mother and son move in similar spaces, even encounter the same characters sometimes – but they remain apart. Love – the idea or absence of it – haunts proceedings.
Ørstavik will often arrange scenes so that Jon and Vibeke are in the same type of environment – different houses or different cars. When these merge together, it flips the sense of the book around: now, even though mother and son are separated physically, they may be closer together in other ways. This plays out with painful clarity at the end, a poignant final chapter to a compelling novel.
It’s August, which means Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal at BIblibio. This year I’m starting in Norway, with a splendidly twisty thriller translated by Alison McCullough.
Psychologist Sara thinks nothing of it when her husband Sigurd leaves a voicemail letting her know that he’s arrived at the cabin for a holiday with his friends. She changes her mind when Sigurd’s friends ring her that night, wondering why he hasn’t turned up at the cabin. Then Sigurd’s body is found with two bullets in the back, and life will never be the same again.
I enjoyed reading The Therapist, partly for the game of working out what’s really going on. This is well handled by Flood: I didn’t work it out, but with hindsight I feel I could have. Sara’s job also sets up a neat parallel: professionally, she tries to understand what people are thinking and why; now she’s having to do the same with someone close to her. It’s well worth going along on the journey.
2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.
One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.
The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.
10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)
Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.
Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.
Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.
6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)
It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love.
5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)
After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences.
A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing.
Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating.
2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)
The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read.
1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)
I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this.
That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?
August is Women in Translation Month (hostel by Meytal from Biblibio), so here are three (well, two-and-a-half) relevant reviews first posted on my Instagram.
Natalia Ginzburg, Happiness, as Such (1973) Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor (2019)
This is the second novel that I’ve read by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-91), following Voices in the Evening.
Happiness, as Such was originally published in Italian in 1973 with the title Caro Michele (“Dear Michele”). As that might suggest, it’s told mainly in the form of letters. In 1970, Adriana writes to her son Michele. She doesn’t have high expectations (“I doubt you’ll come over for my birthday because I don’t think you’ll have remembered it”), but needs to tell him that his father is dying. A woman has also turned up with a baby that might be Michele’s. What Adriana doesn’t know is that Michele has moved to England, and isn’t planning to come back.
Adriana’s letters to Michele are particularly barbed, but as the correspondence we read extends more widely through Michele’s family and friends, there is a growing sense of characters talking past each other. We never get to see Michele’s life directly, and it’s as though the other characters can make of it whatever suits them.
The English title of this translation is referenced a couple of times, such as when Adriana wishes her son happiness, “if there is such a thing as happiness.” Looking at the book as a whole, this is an open question, and it keeps the novel on edge throughout.
Gøhril Gabrielsen, Ankomst (2017) Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin (2020)
Ankomst is the second title in Peirene Press‘s Closed Universe series, following the marvellous Snow, Dog, Foot. In this book, we meet another individual slowly unravelling on their own, somewhere cold.
Our narrator is an environmental scientist who’s spending the winter in a cabin in northern Norway, studying seabirds. She’d like it if everything could be about reliable, measurable facts, but she can’t shake off the emotionally complicated situation she has left behind.
The narrator has left her young daughter Lina in the care of her ex, Lina’s father, whom she refers to only as S and detests. She’s in regular Skype contact with her current partner, Jo; he’s supposed to be coming to visit but his trip keeps being delayed.
Our protagonist becomes fascinated with the story of a couple of settlers who lived on this peninsula in the 19th century and whose house burnt down. She has visions of how she imagines their lives to have been, but there’s a sense that she is actually rehearsing her anxieties about her own life. Then there are the missing days, the cries she thinks she hears…
The title Ankomst means ‘arrival’, and there’s a growing tension as different arrivals are delayed and unexpectedly brought forward. Ankomst is an immersive, disorienting character study, and it ends in just the right place.
Bae Suah, Untold Night and Day (2013) Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)
Bae Suah has been on my list of authors to try for some time. This short novel of hers is short and strange and… difficult to capture in words. (which is why I haven’t written more about it!).
We begin with Ayami, the sole employee of an audio theatre that plays back recorded performances for visually impaired people. Strange things are happening: she keeps hearing spoken lines from the radio that turns itself on and off. She sees an old couple outside the theatre who she thinks may be her parents. Today is also the last day the theatre will be open, so Ayami needs a new job.
What follows is day merging into night, reality fraying at the edges, in sweltering summer heat. A summary wouldn’t do it justice, but it is a suffocating and disorienting book to read.
Welcome to the second part of my countdown of 50 bookish memories from the 2010s. The first part went up last week, with the rest to follow each Sunday.
Compiling this list has made me realise just how idiosyncratic a personal reading history is. I read quite a lot of debuts, especially at the start of the decade, and didn’t begin reading works in translation seriously until about 2014. Both of those factors have helped shape my list. When I looked through some other ‘best of the decade’ lists, I was surprised at how few matches I saw with mine. But perhaps that’s how it was always going to be. Anyway, on to the next set of books…
The official announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize has been postponed until later in the summer, to give readers more time to get and read copies of the novels.
But our shadow jury of bloggers and reviewers of translated fiction has already completed our reading and re-reading, so it seems fitting to announce our Shadow Winner on the original date of May 19th.
As a reminder our own shortlist was, in alphabetical order of the original author’s name:
The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar (Farsi – Iran), tr. Anonymous (Europa Editions) The Other Name: Septology I-II by Jon Fosse (Norwegian – Norway), tr. Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Spanish – Mexico), tr. Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Japanese – Japan), tr. Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker) Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (French – France), tr. Sophie Lewis & Jennifer Higgins (Peirene Press) The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch – Netherlands), tr. Michele Hutchison (Faber & Faber)
We were collectively impressed with all of these books, indeed all six had their champions among us.
And three books in particular were so close in our deliberations and our voting that it was almost tempting to go one further than last year’s anglophone Booker judges. But instead we’ve kept with one winner, but decided to acknowledge two books as Runners-Up.
Runners-Up: The Other Name: Septology I-II and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree
Jon Fosse’s “slow prose”, unfolding his story in one long, flowing stream that reads with great fluidity, took us deep inside his narrator Asle’s mind and thoughts. And we were caught up in the heady mixture of Persian myth, story-telling and magic realism of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, a true ode to literature and to the deeply soothing role books and stories play in our survival of trauma.
But the winner of our 2020 Shadow Jury Prize is: Hurricane Season, written by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Comments from some of our judges:
“Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.”
“There is anger, pain, and the understanding of the role literature plays when it comes to compassion and empathy.”
“As author M. John Harrison said of Melchor’s novel ‘…she had shown me things I needed to be faced with.’ and expanded my understanding of lives so very different from my own.”
“It unflinchingly portrayed a world apart from us and artfully created another layer of distance from subject through the use of mythologized violence. That she both creates distance and ‘makes us look’ simultaneously was incredibly powerful for me.”
“Melchor’s prose, in Hughes’s stunning translation, is raw, brutal and so, so necessary.”
“As readers and intrepid voyagers down Melchor’s Dante-like vision, we are like riveted inmates, incarcerated either by law or by economics or gender, who stand to witness the depravity, despair and pain being inflicted upon this part of the world. The real evidence and reward here is not in unmasking the Witch’s killer or killers or in finding out why this happened, the true recompense of Melchor’s novel is to pay tribute by listening to the dead’s testimony,‘there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’”
And our congratulations extend to the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided two of our top three, and also now have two Shadow Prize wins in three years.
Now it’s over to the official jury for their decision.
“What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?”
Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds (1957) Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)
Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace was one of the stand-out books I read a couple of years ago, so it was a pleasure to read another of his novels and find it similarly affecting.
Our viewpoint character this time is 37-year-old Mattis, who lives with his older sister Hege in a cottage by the lake. The locals call him ‘Simple Simon’, and he doesn’t have much luck – either with getting women to notice him, or finding work. At one point, we see him join in with thinning out the rows of turnips on a local farm, but he simply can’t keep up.
There’s always the possibility that things will change, though. Towards the beginning of the novel, Mattis sees a woodcock fly directly over the house. He’s never seen one do that before. Mattis’s world is reordered: “It seemed to be a different house now, you had to look at it with different eyes.” He is eager to tell Hege what’s happened, but her reaction is a weary, “go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”
This is the way life tends to go for Mattis: things that mean so much to him leave others indifferent, and he can’t understand why. As readers, we can share his delight and frustration, but we can also see how difficult Hege has found it living with him – even though she doesn’t want to let it show.
There are a couple of chapters in the middle of The Birds that I think will go down as one of my favourite sequences in fiction. Mattis has been out in his boat and become stranded. He is found by a couple of holidaying girls, Anna and Inger, who take him back to shore. I was stunned by the range of emotions covered with such subtlety in these scenes. You see so much all at once.
Mattis is innocently overjoyed that finally some girls have paid attention to him. What’s more, they don’t know him, so he can revel in the freedom of being someone else. At the same time, his wandering eye and emotional intensity make Anna and Inger uncomfortable. But they also feel it would be wrong to leave him there. The sense is that they know on one level that Mattis means no harm, but on another they are instinctively wary of him. Vesaas makes clear that all these emotional contradictions are bound up together, and the tension between them helps give these scenes their power.
Mattis later tries to earn a living as a ferryman, but ends up with only one passenger: Jørgen, a lumberjack. Jørgen needs a bed for the night, so Mattis invites him back to the cottage – and there the lumberjack stays, because Hege falls in love with him. Now the balance of Mattis’s life is upended, and he has to work out his place in the world anew.
The touchstones of Mattis’s world – small events in nature, Hege and her constant knitting – are not those of other people. This is what makes it so difficult for him to relate to others, and them to him. But there are still times when he wants to ask the big questions – “Why are things the way they are?” – if someone would only listen. Vesaas depicts Mattis and his life with piercing clarity.
My book group chose Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun(Canongate)to read for May. It’s an account of the author’s return from London to her native Orkney after ten years of struggling with alcoholism. I’ve heard of praise for The Outrun in the years since it was published, and was glad to have an excuse to read it. Overall, I enjoyed it: in particular, I felt that Liptrot struck a fine balance between life before and after the return to Orkney (her recovery is ongoing throughout the book). It combines aspects of nature writing and memoir of illness into a work very much its own.
At this time, I was in the middle of three books for review elsewhere; I felt the need for something else, to decompress. I’d been interested in Ash Before Oak (Fitzcarraldo Editions) by Jeremy Cooper since I first heard about it. It takes the form of a nature diary written by a man who has moved to Somerset, to start a new life in the country. But he also has mental health problems, something that emerges gradually within the text. We gain glimpses of his breakdown and recovery as the novel goes on. The structure of Ash Before Oak – very short chapters that progress serenely rather than choppily – provided the ideal contrast to my more concentrated review reading. I could just let Cooper’s novel open up in my mind as it would – it’s affecting stuff.
Termin by Henrik Nor-Hansen (tr. Matt Bagguley) is a particularly short, particularly sharp Norwegian novel from Nordisk Books. It tells the story of Kjetil Tuestad, who is severely assaulted in 1998. Over the following years, Kjetil struggles to deal with the psychological repercussions of this; his relationship falls apart, and there’s economic hardship in the background. What makes Termin especially powerful is that it’s written in the detached tone of a police report, and even the most innocuous or intimate event is treated with cold scepticism (“They supposedly gave each other a hug”). This technique drains all the warmth out of what happens, suggesting a loss of empathy in Kjetil’s life and more broadly across society.
The theme for this year’s Peirene Press titles is “There Be Monsters”. The first one comes from Finland: Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (tr. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah). It’s written as a recovered expedition diary from the 1820s; Iax Agolasky is research assistant on an expedition to north-west Russia. The party comes across a group of creatures that resemble human children with certain animal features. Differences of opinion arise over what this discovery might mean and what should be done. Children of the Cave explores what it means to be human, as both Agolasky (whose instinct is to protect the children) and those with other ideas start to seem more animalistic. I found this a thought-provoking piece of work.