TagEuropa Editions

Strike Your Heart – Amélie Nothomb (#WITMonth)

It was Dan Rhodes on Twitter who first recommended Amélie Nothomb’s work to me. Several years later, I’ve finally acted on the recommendation, with Nothomb’s most recent novel to appear in English. I wish I’d read her much sooner.

Strike Your Heart begins in 1971 with beautiful nineteen-year-old Marie, who loves to be the centre of attention. She marries a handsome young man, and feels that the future will be one of infinite possibility. That’s until she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to Diane the following year. Only once does Marie show any affection towards her daughter, and by the age of four Diane has some insight into her mother’s thinking:

Even if [Marie] had made progress in life, she was still no more than an accountant at her husband’s pharmacy, not a Queen, and while her husband might be the most attentive, infatuated spouse imaginable, he was still not a King. The little girl’s love for her mother was so great that it could even encompass what her own birth must have meant to Marie: resignation, the end of her faith in some kind of ideal.
(translation from the French by Alison Anderson)

It becomes clear in time just how jealous Marie is of Diane, something that tears their relationship (such as it is) apart. Diane goes on to study cardiology at university, where she strikes up a close friendship with Olivia, an assistant professor. She helps Olivia’s daughter with her homework, devotes two years to working with Olivia on the articles Olivia needs to apply for a full professorship… But it seems that Olivia may not be such a friend to Diane after all.

Strike Your Heart is a sharp 360-degree view of the female relationships in its protagonist’s life. I enjoyed it very much, so I’d better not leave it too long before reading another book by Nothomb.

Book details

Strike Your Heart (2017) by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Alison Anderson (2018), Europa Editions, 135 pages, paperback.

The Castle of Whispers – Carole Martinez

It’s time for some historical fiction, the second novel by French writer Carole Martinez. In the late 12th century, Esclarmonde is the beautiful daughter of a lord; she faces marriage to the philandering Lothaire, scion of Montfaucon, but she knows that this will lead to an unacceptable loss of autonomy:

I would be nothing but a modest container whom successive pregnancies would finally carry away. And even if Lothaire died before me, my widowhood would not protect me, but would abandon me again to the highest bidder as a token of some alliance or other. 

(translation by Howard Curtis) 

There’s only one thing that Esclarmonde can think to do: at the wedding ceremony, she cuts off her ear and announces that she will dedicate her life to Christ as an anchoress. Her family’s seat, the Castle of Whispers, has been added to piecemeal over the generations; now her father adds the chapel in which Esclarmonde will be sealed for the rest of her days. She will be considered dead to the world, even receiving the rite of extreme unction.  

However, the night before her confinement begins, Esclarmonde is raped. In the following months, she falls pregnant and gives birth to a boy whom she names Ezléar, “God’s help”. She decides to keep the child, whose birth comes to be seen as miraculous (no one asks Esclarmonde the question that would reveal otherwise). Add to this that no one has been claimed by death since Esclarmonde entered her cell, and the Damsel of the Whispers’ reputation only grows. 

But although Esclarmonde’s godliness increases in the eyes of others, her own feelings are moving in a different direction:

Gradually, without my even noticing, my attention moved away from the hagioscope to my son and all the people he attracted. God occupied me less than his creatures from now, and I never grew tired of watching them, listening to them, trying to understand what motivated their little brains. I no longer dreaded their judgment, or even that of God. I had not lied, I had merely kept silent about a truth that nobody wanted to hear anyway, and my silence had offered a blank space to be embroidered, an emptiness that everyone had seized on with delight. 

Esclarmonde’s self-questioning over her faith is a recurring theme of The Castle of Whispers. Another is motherhood, and what Elzéar represents you Esclarmonde – whether she’ll be happy to surrender him to the outside world before he grows too large to fit through the window to her cell. A further theme is power: in a world ruled by men, Esclarmonde gains a certain amount of power through her status as an anchor essay. Later on in the novel, she convinces her father to join Frederick Barbarossa’s forces on the Third Crusade; the lord’s young wife Douce, Esclarmonde’s stepmother, rules at home in his stead. The book becomes an exploration of the shifting spaces of male and female power. 

I’m struck by how much The Castle of Whispers encompasses when its protagonist spends most of time confined to a small space. More than that, it’s thoroughly engrossing. After this, I’ll certainly be going back to look at Martinez’s first novel, The Threads of the Heart, and looking out for future books, too. 

Elsewhere 

Stu has reviewed this book over at Winstonsdad’s Blog

Book details 

The Castle of Whispers (2011) by Carole Martinez, tr. Howard Curtis (2014), Europa Editions, 194 pages, hardback (review copy). 

Second Impressions: Alina Bronsky

Much as I like discovering unfamiliar writers, one of the pleasures of reading an author for the second time in particular is that it allows you to start making connections and building a tentative picture of that author’s approach and concerns. The picture might eventually turn out to be inaccurate, but that’s all part of the exploration of reading.

I’ve now read two novels by Alina Bronsky, so I can form a better picture of her work. Vivid narrators are a key element, which is no surprise following the powerful presence of Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, but it’s still good to have this underlined. If Marek in Just Call Me Superhero isn’t quite as a strong a presence – well, few would be. Besides, his distance from the reader (from everyone, from himself) is a central part of his nature as a character.

Bronsky also filters reality through the perception of her narrators in striking ways. Rosa is so sure of her self-image that there’s a certain wry humour (and, later, melancholy) in realising that the actuality is rather different. Marek isn’t so much deluded about his situation as too guarded to let others in, including the reader. We’re with him as he crosses the boundaries into unfamiliar territory, and we see his ambivalence about getting closer to someone else.

Here’s hoping, then, for many more interesting characters’ worlds to come from Alina Bronsky.

Book details (Publisher link / Foyles affiliate link)

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2011), Europa Editions paperback

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

Just Call Me Superhero: into the unknown

If To Mervas is a novel of moving from inside to outside and back again, Alina Bronsky’s Just Call Me Superhero (translated from the German by Tim Mohr) is one of crossing into unfamiliar worlds. It begins with our narrator, Marek, arriving at what he thinks will be a tutorial to help him pass his high school diploma – only to find that his mother has actually sent him to a support group for disabled people. Marek was disfigured after being attacked by a Rottweiler, but he wants nothing to do with any sort of disability group – until, that is, he spots the beautiful Janne sitting there in her wheelchair.

One of the first things I began to notice about Just Call Me Superhero was how tightly controlled was the flow of information about Marek– for instance, we never learn the full story of his disfigurement. We are firmly in the ‘here and now’ of Marek’s life; there is a clear sense of going only as far into his world as he will allow. That’s what it’s like for Marek with the disability group (particularly the frosty reception he gets from Janne), though there’s also reluctance on his part to enter the group and open himself to them.

Bronsky’s novel is effectively structured into two halves, with Marek taking reluctant steps into two of these unfamiliar spheres. In the first half, it’s the disability group; in the second, it is the family of his father, who eloped with the au pair and had a son whom Marek barely knows. Bronsky draws intriguing parallels between the two groups, and one question hangs above all: is there a family for Marek, among all these people?

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Just Call Me Superhero (2013) by Alina Bronsky, tr. Tim Mohr (2014), Europa Editions paperback

Read more of my posts for Women in Translation Month.

Book notes: Darling, Zeniter, Meredith

Tom Darling, Summer (2012)

Tom Darling’s second novel, Summer, is the story of teenage Grace Hooper and her nine-year-old brother Billy, who arrive on their grandfather’s farm as orphans, their parents having been killed in an accident on holiday. School will not begin again for several months; until then, the children face a summer in an environment far removed from the London they know (underlining their sense of disorientation, it is never clear just where the farm is), with a relative who might as well be a stranger (and, indeed, is referred to almost exclusively in the book as ‘the old man’).

Summer is a quiet book that takes time to unfold, often telling its story in the gaps between scenes as well as within the scenes themselves. It moves between the present, the past, and the old man’s dreams, generally maintaining the same tone. These techniques can be effective; the children’s memories feel like the mirages they are, aspects of the present rather than an equal reality; and, though it’s evident from the grandfather’s bad dreams that something terrible has happened on the farm previously, the reader has to piece that together over time. However, the novel also feels a bit too diffuse; its different narrative components are not tied together as closely as they might be, and some key points may be lost amongst the whole.

But what Darling does particularly well in Summer is delineate the change in his protagonists. At first, it’s Billy who takes instinctively to the farm environment, and his grandfather is only too happy to accommodate his interest. Billy’s existence on the farm becomes almost elemental, and he spends more time in one of his outside hideaways than in the farmhouse. Grace, in contrast, is more cast adrift at first, but eventually comes to her own instinctive—though subtly different—understanding of her surroundings; her relationship with the farm is mediated through human contact more than is Billy’s, and the way she ultimately views the place is more ordered. It’s in details like this, and as a study of character, that Summer shines most strongly.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Reviews elsewhere: Learn This Phrase; What Sarah Reads; Stevie Davies for the Guardian.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (2010/1)

Alice Zeniter was 23 when she published Jusque dans nos bras (now superbly translated from the French by Alison Anderson as Take This Man), and it really feels as though she has captured in it something of contemporary life for her generation. We meet Zeniter’s protagonist (also named Alice Zeniter) as she is about to marry her Malian childhood friend Amadou (‘Mad’) Traoré – a marriage brought about because it will prevent Mad from being deported under new immigration laws, despite his having lived in France most of his life. The novel’s chapters alternate between the lead-up to the wedding and Alice’s various encounters with racism.

Take This Man begins with a brilliant passage listing the touchstones of Alice’s generation as she sees them; it captures a mixture of optimism and anxiety which carries through to the main novel, where one senses that Alice is never quite sure whether marrying Mad is really the right thing to do (her first-person narration frequently lapses into addressing herself as ‘you’, emphasising that dislocation). Zeniter traces the complexities of Alice’s situation – her father may be from Algeria, but she appears white, and discovers that her experiences are not the same as Mad’s – and charts her growing political awareness, all in fizzing prose.

Review at Soifollowjulian.

Christopher Meredith, The Book of Idiots (2012)

Christopher Meredith’s first adult novel in fourteen years seems at first like a tapestry of the mundane. Interspersed with tales of boyhood games, Dean Lloyd narrates episodes from his adult life: interviewing candidates for a new position at his workplace; conversations at the swimming pool with Jeff, an old work colleague whose trunks keep threatening to disintegrate; a country walk with a friend named Wil Daniel, who tells Dean about a chance meeting at hospital with a woman he once knew, and its consequences. But there’s more going on than Dean – or the reader – may suspect.

Meredith has a particularly sharp ear for dialogue which feels like actual speech; and he creates a sharp portrait of thwarted potential – for example, Wil wonders what use his degree in English and history has really been; the answer, as far as the novel goes, is that he can play a guessing game with Dean about how different historical figures died.

I don’t think I managed to grasp everything Meredith was doing in The Book of Idiots; but the title intrigued me and, with the novel’s mentions of Ancient Greece, I looked up the original meaning of ‘idiot’ – which, as I understand it, was someone focused on the private sphere, on themselves. Viewing the book through this lens, I see characters with personal concerns which they don’t share, or don’t recognise in others – with tragic consequences. It’s the unseen things in The Book of Idiots which carry the greatest impact.

Review and interview by Gwen Davies in New Welsh Review.

Book notes: Cossé, Levine, Unsworth

Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore (2009/10)

A Novel Bookstore is the ninth novel by French writer Laurence Cossé (the translaltion is by Alison Anderson); one of the launch titles for the UK imprint of Europa Editions; and a celebration of literature. Ivan Georg is a bookseller who has reached his forties mostly drifting through life; but that all changes when he meets Francesca Aldo-Valbelli, a fellow-lover of literature, with the wealth to turn a vision into reality – and the particular vision which the pair has is a bookstore which will stock only good novels, as selected by a secret committee of writers. The Good Novel bookstore duly opens inParis, and is a great success; but there are those who seek to discredit this well-intentioned enterprise – even to the point of physically attacking its committee members.

Though Cossé’s novel is framed as a mystery, its structure (with a lengthy detour in the middle detailing the history of The Good Novel) – and, indeed, the very resolution of the mystery – suggests that this element is not the main point of A Novel Bookstore; rather, it’s about the value of literature itself. There are direct statements of what good novels can do – literature ‘prepares you for life’ (p. 150), it ‘bring[s] like-minded people together and get[s] them talking’ (p. 81) – but we also see how literature has enriched the lives of the characters who write and read it in the book.

There are aspects of A Novel Bookstore which seem less disruptive here than I’d usually find them in a novel – such as the passages where Ivan and Francesca discuss books, passages which are detailed but don’t drag – and I’m not sure whether I am just cutting the book more slack because I share its enthusiasm for literature, and it imagines a place where I’d love to shop. Well, if that’s the case, so be it; for today, the celebration is enough.

Reviews elsewhere: A Common Reader; Of Books and Reading; Books are My Boyfriends; Nonsuch Book.

Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!! (2012)

Sara Levine’s debut novel (another Europa UK launch title) also revolves around the transforming power of literature, though here it’s one work in particular, and the result is perhaps not as positive. Levine’s (unnamed) narrator is a twenty-something graduate with a penchant for the easy (one might say lazy) option, until reading Treasure Island inspires her to be more like Jim Hawkins, and be bold and adventurous in her life. So she takes money from the Pet Library where she works in order to buy a parrot (which does not go down well with her boss), and goes on from there.

The crux of Treasure Island!!! for me is the narrator’s lack of self-awareness: her inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the negative effects her actions have on others; to recognise that the changes she’s making in her life are not as daring as she thinks; to countenance that other people might have aspirations and lives as complex and important as her own. The protagonist’s narrative voice veers between wry and snarky, which adds to the portrayal of someone who is unsympathetic, but not entirely alienating. One’s reaction to her is held in tension to the very end, where there’s a suggestion that the narrator may finally be finding her way, despite everything.

Reviews elsewhere: Bluestalking; The Well-Read Wife; Muse at Highway Speeds; Em and Emm.

Simon Kurt Unsworth, Rough Music (2012)

Now a new chapbook from Spectral Press, this time by the ever-reliable Simon Unsworth. It’s the tale of a man named Cornish, who’s been hiding an affair from his wife Andrea, and is now having to cope with a bunch of masked figures making a racket and acting out some strange performance beneath his bedroom window every night – though nobody else seems to notice them. From the start, Cornish is not exactly a sympathetic character; but Unsworth gradually and effectively reveals just how cold and calculating the protagonist is, which makes his inevitable comeuppance all the more satisfying. The ‘rough music’ outside also works well, as it shifts back and forth between having a metaphorical function and driving forward changes in the story. All in all, nicely done.

Reviews elsewhere: HellBound Times; The Ginger Nuts of Horror.

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