Taghistorical fiction

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! For my first post of 2019, here are some of the books I read towards the end of last year, including a few new titles:

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018)

This is the short, sharp debut novel by Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite. Our narrator, Korede, is a nurse; her sister Ayoola’s boyfriends have a tendency to end up dead, and Korede helps her clean up afterwards. But, when Ayoola starts going out with a doctor whom her sister secretly loves, Korede has to make a choice… Both writing and viewpoint in Braithwaite’s novel are intensely focused, which throws the reader head-first into its situation. To my mind, My Sister, the Serial Killer is at heart a novel of character, and a compelling one at that.

Evald Flisar, A Swarm of Dust (2017)
Translated from the Slovene by David Limon (2018)

Janek Hudorovec grows up in a Roma family in 1960s Yugoslavia. In the first scene of Evald Flisar’s novel, we discover the dark secret that Janek will carry with him through life. Janek finds social conventions and niceties stifling; though he may think he’s escaping the strictures of village life when he gets the chance to go to university, he realises that he needs the freedom of nature, even though returning to the village means confronting his past. Flisar evokes Janek’s inner life so fully that A Swarm of Dust can be deeply harrowing to be read – but it’s powerful stuff.

Charlotte Runcie, Salt on Your Tongue (2019)

Charlotte Runcie is an arts journalist for the Telegraph; Salt on Your Tongue is her first book. It’s a memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, combined with an exploration of what the sea has meant to women through history. Runcie draws on art, music and mythology, relating these to her own experience and love of the sea, and vice versa. The resulting book is absorbing and intensely personal.

Dalia Grinkevičiutė, Shadows on the Tundra (1997)
Translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas (2018)

Dalia Grinkevičiutė was a teenager in 1941 when she and her family were deported to a Siberian Gulag. Seven years later, she escaped and returned to Lithuania, where she wrote down the memories that would become Shadows on the Tundra. She buried the papers in a jar in her garden; they were not found until 1991, after her death. Shadows on the Tundra now appears in English as part of Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series. It’s a harrowing account of life in the prison camp, with Delija Valiukenas’ translation really capturing a rawness to Grinkevičiutė’s writing.

Dov Alfon, A Long Night in Paris (2016)
Translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir (2019)

A marketing manager from Israel disembarks at Charles de Gaulle Airport with five colleagues. He approaches a pretty blonde hotel greeter outside, ready for a spot of flirting… only to be abducted instead. This sparks an investigation that will involve Israeli intelligence officers at home and in Paris, as well as the local French police. The first novel by journalist Dov Alfon is a sprawling thriller that keeps up a frenetic pace, with plenty of swerves in the plot.

A Long Night in Paris will be published on 10 January; the other books are available now.

A mid-December round-up of recent reading

As I’m currently short on blogging time, here are a few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately:

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017)
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr (2018)

Vienna, 1919: Inspector August Emmerich is tailing a smuggler when he comes across the corpse of a homeless war veteran. Though this appears to be suicide, Emmerich is convinced it’s a murder – even more so when other bodies start to turn up. Alongside the mystery, Beer paints a vivid portrait of a city scarred by war, trying to find its feet again amid the grand remnants of the Habsburg age. There are also some moments of great fun, such as the scene where Emmerich bluffs his way through a hospital lecture while disguised as a doctor. I loved The Second Rider, and I’m really pleased to hear there’s a sequel which will be out in translation next year.

Clifford D. Simak, Way Station (1963)

Way Station is a space opera set in rural Wisconsin. Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War, and was then visited by the Galactic Council, who sought to establish a way station on Earth for extra-terrestrial travellers. Wallace’s farmhouse became the way station, and he its immortal custodian; he knows more about the universe than any other human in history, but must live in isolation. I particularly enjoyed Way Station for its sense of how unable the vast universe remains: it brings the alien to Earth, but not down to Earth.

Erhard von Büren, A Long Blue Monday (2013)
Translated from the German by Helen Wallimann (2018)

This is the third novel by Swiss writer von Büren to appear in English. In the present day, Paul Ganter has moved out of his marital home to work on a book. While there, he thinks back to the 1950s and his unrequited love for Claudia, a rich girl he met at college. The young Paul skipped several weeks of college to write a play for Claudia, in the hope of impressing her. Von Büren explores Paul’s life and background in some detail: Paul’s intense period of reflection causes him to question all that he’s done and why people might have reacted as they did. The story of A Long Blue Monday is Paul’s attempt to come to terms with what he has (and has not) become.

Edward Carey, Little (2018)

Little is a novel about the life of Marie Grosholtz, who would become better known as Madame Tussaud. Born in 1761, the young Marie becomes assistant to a waxwork sculptor, spends time as tutor to a French princess, and gets caught up in the foment of revolution. Carey’s prose is bright and colourful, and his illustrations add to a heightened atmosphere. The novel reflects on what it is to create a likeness, to look or represent – and it’s a pleasure to read.

Abi Silver, The Pinocchio Brief (2017)

The Pinocchio Brief is a legal thriller in which barrister Judith Burton and solicitor Constance Lamb team up to defend a boy accused of murdering his teacher. An experimental piece of lie-detection software will be used at the trial, which has implications for Burton – and gives the boy an idea… I found this a very engaging tale, with plenty of tricks up its sleeve. I usually have a more relaxed book on the go that I dip into now and then, and this one was perfect for that.

Bird Cottage – Eva Meijer: a EuroLitNetwork review

It has been a while, but I’m pleased to be back at the European Literature Network for this month’s #RivetingReviews section. The book I’m reviewing is Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer (translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett). It’s a novel about the life of a historical figure who was unknown to me: Gwendolen (Len) Howard, a concert violinist who, aged 40,changed her life and moved to a Sussex cottage to study the birds in her garden. She published two books, and her ideas were ahead of her time, but her work was not taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

Bird Cottage is a fascinating story; click here to read my review in full.

Book details

Bird Cottage (2016) by Eva Meijer, tr. Antoinette Fawcett (2018), Pushkin Press, 256 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

A pair from Glagoslav

Today I’m looking at two books from Glagoslav Publications, who specialise in Slavic literature. I have a contemporary Russian novel for you, and a Belarusian classic.

Vasil Bykau, Alpine Ballad (1964)
Translated from the Belarusian by Mikalai Khilo (2016)

This is the first Belarusian book I’ve read (in terms of both country and original language). From what I’ve read about him, Vasil Bykau (1924-2003) is one of the most significant figures in Belarusian literature. Glagoslav’s edition of Alpine Ballad is the first English translation to be based on Bykau’s original, uncensored manuscript.

During the later years of World War Two, a bomb explodes in an Alpine concentration camp. Ivan, a Belarusian soldier, makes good his escape. Shortly after, he comes across Giulia, a young Italian woman who was also being held prisoner in the camp. She doesn’t speak a lot of Russian, but through a mixture of that, German and Italian, the two are able to understand each other. We then follow them over the course of a few days as they try to evade capture and reach safety.

Alpine Ballad is a briskly told tale, constantly in motion. Bykau’s action sequences, when Ivan and Giulia are on the run, are gripping. There are also some really affecting moments where it becomes clear how the pair are developing feelings for each other. Giulia has an idealised image of Soviet communism, which Ivan is quick to dispel. This combination of social commentary, romance and action makes Alpine Ballad compelling reading.

Igor Eliseev, One-Two (2016)

Igor Eliseev is a Russian writer who writes in English; One-Two is his debut novel. This is the story of two conjoined sisters named Vera (our narrator) and Nadezhda – or Faith and Hope, as they are referred to throughout the book. The girls spend much of their childhood in a series of dismal institutions, including a foster home whose principal dubs them ‘One’ and ‘Two’, and where they’re subjected to much worse indignities than that. Eventually the sisters run away from the home and head to the city, hoping to find a place for themselves.

One-Two is a harrowing book, as Faith and Hope travel a difficult road. The history of 1980s and ’90s Russia unfolds in the background, and there’s a sense that Eliseev is reflecting this in the personal story of his protagonists. As well as everything that happens to them from without, the girls face their own internal struggles, as their very different personalities come to the fore. There is the tantalising prospect that they may be able to undergo separation surgery, which leads the pair to wonder what it might be like to have their own individual body, for all that the consequences may be drastic. One-Two is an interesting character study, and a powerful tale of personal struggle.

Book details

Alpine Ballad (1964) by Vasil Bykau, tr. Mikalai Khilo (2016), Glagoslav Publications, 206 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

One-Two (2016) by Igor Eliseev, Glagoslav Publications, 244 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Reading out loud: The Girls of Slender Means

I’ve been intending to read Muriel Spark (last time was The Driver’s Seat) again all year, what with it being her centenary. It took me until the autumn to actually do that, but better late than never…

I’m trying something a bit different with this post, taking inspiration from that Twitter discussion of The Rings of Saturn in the summer. I tweeted my thoughts on The Girls of Slender Means as I was reading it, and am now collecting them together here. I’ve called this “reading out loud” because it’s more off the cuff and impressionistic than a proper review would be. I felt that a ‘known’ book like this could support that kind of post.

To introduce the book briefly: The Girls of Slender Means was first published in 1963. It’s mostly set in 1945, and concerns the May of Teck Club, a London hostel for women aged under 30. I’ve expanded the original tweets a little for clarity, but still I doubt the post below will make much sense if you haven’t read the novel. If you’re looking for a recommendation, though… consider the book recommended!

***

It’s been too long since I last read Muriel Spark. I’m enjoying it from the first sentence: “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” Instantly recognisable voice: reading it feels like coming home.

Already the narrative is being subtly destabilised (which I’m coming to expect from Spark). The present-day passages feel more like intrusions than an alternative plot strand.

Interesting that present-day passages (which discuss a character’s death) are all telephone conversations. I need to read further to understand what this means, but I’m thinking it’s perhaps a comment on the distance created by that form of communication.

I love the little details that punctuate a scene with humour, such as the arguments over brown wallpaper in the drawing-room, or the frequent soundtrack of lines from Joanna’s elocution lessons.

Just twigged that there’s a theme of missed (or misunderstood) communication: the present-day phone calls that break up, the rote learning of elocution lessons (lines that are repeated but not necessarily felt by the person saying them).

A bomb explodes in the club’s garden towards the end of the book. Interesting that this is explicitly framed as disrupting the girls’ sense of time and space. Time is experienced differently by those trapped inside the club, and those outside who realise how urgent the situation is.

Besides bringing the plot to a point of singularity, the fire seems to bring individual characterisation to a head. I noticed this especially with Joanna reciting her elocution lines – which manage to be both empty and all too meaningful.

The closing scene of murder and violence amidst the WW2 victory celebrations underlines themes of darkness beneath events and distance from authority that have run through the book.

I love that the final paragraph manages simultaneously to link back to the start of the novel, push forward into the future, *and* leave the present both open and closed off.

Book details

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) by Muriel Spark, Penguin Books (2013 edn), 144 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

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). 

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). 

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Photographer – Meike Ziervogel

You might know Meike Ziervogel best as the publisher of Peirene Press; but she’s also built a career as a novelist over the last few years. The Photographer is her fourth novel (published, like the others, by Salt), and draws upon the history of the 11 million Germans who fled west in 1945 to escape the fighting. Like Han Kang’s Human Acts (albeit in a rather different way), Ziervogel’s book examines a large human event at an intensely individual scale.

In a small Pomeranian town, a young girl named Trude dreams of being whisked away by her prince. In 1933, shortly after turning eighteen, she finds him: a photographer named Albert. His work allows the couple to travel Europe; later they have a son, Peter. However, Trude’s mother Agatha never takes to Albert: he’s “a boy from the gutter”, not fit for her daughter. Discovering from Peter that Albert listens to enemy radio is all the pretext Agatha needs to report him to the authorities and get him sent to the front. In 1945, the family is forced to leave for Berlin before Albert has returned. The rest of Ziervogel’s novel chronicles how this broken family heals itself.

Appropriately enough given its title, The Photographer revolves around themes of image and appearance, which are often tied to social status. So, for example, we begin with Trude’s dreams of a romantic life – which, for a while, she gets. But, when the family flees to Berlin, those dreams come crashing down around her:

She hasn’t even put on any lipstick and looks like a common woman with a tear-stained face whose husband has just been taken away, has just died. There are thousands and thousands of these women. She feels ashamed to be one of them now.

All of a sudden, Trude feels that her individual, exceptional story has collapsed into something generic: the tale of any other refugee wife. To an extent, she’s right: in the grand sweep of history, she will become part of a statistic, one of those 11 million people. What Trude overlooks, though, is that each of the refugees has their own life, as rich to them as hers is to herself.

In 1947, the family is reunited after Albert has been released from Russian captivity. Here, there is a key lack of images: Albert and Peter can’t remember what the other used to look like, and therefore can’t recognise each other in the present. They have to get to know each other from first principles in order to bridge the gap of the years

Albert’s sense of displacement extends to how he has come to think of photography:

While before the war the camera was his extended eye, which he used to capture his view of the world, it was now what protected him, behind which he hid, which kept him, the real Albert, at a distance. Far, far away from everything that was happening around him.

Where Albert once faced the world with confidence, now photography is just about his only point of stability. No surprise, perhaps, that he attempts to reach Peter by trying to get him interested in photography, although the boy would rather spend his time boxing. Ultimately, it seems, Albert and Peter need to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. 

The Photographer has that wonderful combination of being dense with reading, yet with an openness to the writing. The novel is structured like a photo album: whole lives are narrated, but intermittently. Some events are told in detail; others have to be inferred by the reader; still others are so private that they don’t appear on the page. This is a novel of history as something lived through and looked back on, vivid incidents scattered among the threads of life.

Other reviews 

Read other reviews of The Photographer by Mika Provata-Carlone at Bookanista, and Jackie Law at Bookmunch

Book details

The Photographer (2017) by Meike Ziervogel, Salt Publishing, 171 pages, paperback (review copy). 

The Explosion Chronicles: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Yan Lianke, The Explosion Chronicles (2013)

Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (2016)



Yan Lianke is the only author to appear in last year’s MBIP longlist as well as this year’s. I didn’t get chance to review his The Four Books last year, but I did enjoy it, even though I was flagging by the end. I ended up having much the same reaction to The Explosion Chronicles.

Yan’s novel narrates the history of the fictitious settlement Explosion (named after a volcanic eruption), in particular its expansion over the last sixty years from a village all the way up to a megalopolis. Much of this history revolves around two rival clans, the Kong and Zhu. Explosion gains its initial wealth from the villagers’ following Chief Kong Mingliang’s example and stealing (sorry, unloading) coal from passing trains. The previous chieftain’s daughter, Zhu Ying, makes her fortune elsewhere through prostitution, then comes back to Explosion in order to build an empire there.


To my mind, Yan’s prose style (in Rojas’ translation, of course) often has a folktale quality; and there are touches of magical realism that push the novel into absurdity, if it’s not there already. But Yan’s afterword reveals that some of the events which I had assumed were made up had their basis in actuality. Yan calls his approach ‘mythorealism’, and explains that he felt he had to stretch reality in order to address the particular changes in Chinese society with which The Explosion Chronicles is concerned. It gave me cause to think again about what I’d been reading.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


What I’ve found having read two Yan Lianke novels is that I do enjoy his work, but in small doses. Over 450 pages (the length of The Explosion Chronicles), it becomes a little wearying, as the novel is quite repetitive. Yan’s book won’t make my top six, but I can see absolutely why it might find a place on the official shortlist.

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