MacLehose Press: A Perfect Day to Be Alone by Nanae Aoyama (tr. Jesse Kirkwood)

Twenty-year-old Chizu is feeling disaffected enough when her mother leaves for a job in China. She becomes even more so when she finds out who she’s been sent to live with: seventy-year-old Ginko, a distant relative who might as well be a stranger. “She looks like she’s barely got a week to live,” thinks Chizu. 

Nanae Aoyama’s short novel (originally published in Japanese in 2007) unfolds over the course of a year. It’s divided into sections according to the seasons, giving the impression of a cycle rather than relentless forward momentum – a period of slow change and renewal. 

Chizu is unsure how she wants to be in life, which leads her to put emotional distance between herself and others:

I’d have liked to stay young, to lead a quiet life sheltered from all the drama of the world. But it seemed that wasn’t an option. I was braced for my fair share of hardship. I wanted to try being an ordinary person, living an ordinary life. I wanted to become as thick-skinned as possible, to turn myself into someone who could survive anything.

Translated from Japanese by Jesse Kirkwood

During the novel’s year, Chizu drifts in and out of relationships and jobs. She seems surprised to discover that Ginko has a life, even love, of her own. But living with Ginko changes Chizu. It’s not so much that the two become close, more that seeing Ginko live her life opens space for Chizu to view her own life differently. When the year turns, there is finally a sense that Chizu can move forward positively. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

#InternationalBooker2024: and the winner is…

Once again, the official International Booker judges and the shadow panel have diverged. We chose Not a River as our shadow winner, but the official winner is:

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)

Congratulations to them, and thanks as always to my fellow shadow panellists. I wonder what next year will bring…

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: the shadow panel’s winner

Right then, it’s time… The official winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced tonight, but there’s our shadow panel winner to reveal first. We selected our own shortlist of five, and ranked them individually to award scores of 8 points, 5, 3, 2, and 1.

With a grand total of 56 points, our 2024 shadow winner is…

Not a River by Selva Almada, tr. Annie McDermott (Charco Press)

We also want to give honourable mentions to Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, tr. Michael Hofmann (Granta Books), our runner-up with 51 points; and White Nights by Urszula Honek, tr. Kate Webster (MTO Press), which came third with 40 points. We were sorry that White Nights didn’t make the official shortlist, so we’re pleased to give it this recognition.

On to the official winner: will it match our choice, or not?

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

Les Fugitives: After Nora by Penelope Curtis

In her first novel, art historian Penelope Curtis imagines two episodes from her family’s history. The first part concerns Nora (Penelope’s grandmother, whom she never knew), a painter who tries to articulate what her art is ‘about’. Nora comes to feel that landscape is key:

Landscape had, without her quite realizing, become something essential…This had nothing to do with topography, but everything to do with understanding how we manage and what helps. And then she saw that landscape did a good job of disguising itself, wrapping something essential in so many trees. It re-attached litself to us when it was well painted. Then we remembered the painting, more than nature, but we found the painting again once we were back in nature.

In the 1920s, Nora divorces her first husband and marries Lewis, an architect. She is clearly attracted to him, but the exact source of that attraction is mysterious – there’s a certain feeling of distance to Curtis’s writing in this part. It’s not until Nora reads through a packet of Lewis’s letters from the Great War that she has a revelation: the letters’ repetitive nature evokes a way of seeing and feeling landscape that mirrors what Nora saw and felt in her own paintings.

The novel’s second part revolves around the relationship between Nora’s son (Penelope’s father) Adam and Maria de Sousa, both scientists in Glasgow in the 1960s. Scenes alternate between then and the present, after Adam has died, when the author-narrator is in Portugal and tracks down Maria, hoping to gain more understanding of her father’s life at that time.

Both parts then involve a character seeking understanding through art: Nora looking for a deeper understanding of herself through her painting, and the narrator seeking to understand her father better through imaginative writing. But Nora’s story here is itself an act of imagination, which perhaps underlines that there’s a limit to understanding, after all.

Published by Les Fugitives.

#InternationalBooker2024: the shadow panel’s shortlist

Here goes, it’s time to reveal our shadow panel’s shortlist for the International Booker. This year, for the first time, we have a shortlist of only five:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • White Nights by Urszula Honek, translated from Polish by Kate Webster (MTO Press)
  • The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky (Europa Editions UK)

For more on our decision to shortlist five titles instead of six, see Tony’s post on the shadow shortlist.

We’ll announce our shadow winner before the official winner is revealed on 21 May.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare (tr. John Hodgson)

At the centre of A Dictator Calls is an examination of a short phone call made on 23 June 1934 by Stalin to Boris Pasternak. The subject of the call was the recent arrest of Pasternak’s fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. But its precise details are uncertain, because there are multiple accounts of the call, ranging from the official record to second-hand accounts by people of varying proximity to Pasternak. 

Kadare goes through each version of the call, drawing out the differences and varying interpretations. There’s no single definitive account of exactly what Stalin asked Pasternak, or how Pasternak replied, or even why the call took place. Different versions put different slants on these things, and the ultimate impression is one of no stable reality – which, the book suggests, reflects the nature of living and writing in a totalitarian state. 

Alongside his exploration of the Stalin-Pasternak call, Kadare gives an account of his own experiences as an Albanian writer. This puts into context his interest in the Stalin-Pasternak  call, as well as setting up a counterpoint that runs through the tapestry of the novel.

Published by Harvill Secker.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: the official shortlist

The official shortlist for this year’s International Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

  • Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott (Charco Press)
  • Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books)
  • The Details by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson (Wildfire Books)
  • Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Scribe UK)
  • What I’d Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey (Scribe UK)
  • Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (Verso Fiction)

I am still working through the longlist myself, so I don’t have a final opinion yet. But I am sure that at least three of these (Not a River, Kairos and Crooked Plow) will end up on my own personal shortlist. On the other hand, Mater 2-10 struggles to hold my attention whenever I try to read it. Different books for different readers, I guess.

The Shadow Panel will be revealing our own shortlist in a couple of weeks.

#InternationalBooker2024: Undiscovered by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Julia Sanches)

In Undiscovered, we first meet Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener in Paris, as she visits an exhibition of pre-Columbian artefacts that were taken to Europe by her Austrian-born great-great-grandfather, Charles Wiener. Her father’s death has spurred Gabriela on to investigate the legacy of that side of the family, and this is perhaps the most difficult part: the white ancestor who plundered her country.

As she tells it in the novel, Gabriela experiences a certain affinity with Charles in terms of his writing:

Isn’t that what writers do anyway? Pillage the real story and deface it until it shines its own singular light on the world? At some point, Charles started shining brighter than the world he swore he’d discovered, casting the world around him in his shadow. Scholars of his work agree that he was a travel writer, even though that’s wasn’t his intention and his work reads like fiction.

Translated from Spanish by Julia Sanches

Undiscovered could be seen as Gabriela-the-narrator’s way of trying to process and reconcile the different parts of her identity – not just her past, but also her present. Gabriela lives in Spain in a polyamorous relationship, but then has a fling on a trip back to Lima. One strand of the novel then follows Gabriela’s search for an equilibrium in her personal life. The intertwining of the personal and historical is, to my mind, what most animates Wiener’s novel.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior (tr. Johnny Lorenz)

Bibiana and Belonísia are sisters in a community of tenant farmers in northern Brazil. An accident with a knife when they are young leaves Belonísia without a tongue, which comes to represent the farmers’ own lack of voice. Belonísia narrates:

I liked hearing the word “plow” enunciated; it’s a strong, resonant word… But the sound that came from my mouth was an aberration, chaotic, as if the severed chunk of my tongue had been replaced by a hard-boiled egg. My voice was a crooked plow, deformed, penetrating the soil only to leave it infertile, ravaged, destroyed.

Translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz

The tale that unfolds reaches outwards in the person of Bibiana, who leaves the community for a time and gains a greater sense of politics. It also reaches inwards in the person of Belonísia, whose journey is more spiritual.

The first two parts of Crooked Plow are narrated respectively by the two sisters. I was particularly struck by the third part, which is narrated by a spirit conjured forth by their father, a healer. The spirit’s perspective allows this part of the book to take an overview that the rest cannot, adding further dimensions to the story – and the novel’s final image is with me still, both in itself and for what it represents.

Published by Verso Books.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

#InternationalBooker2024: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Michael Hofmann)

According to Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel, Kairos is “the god of fortunate moments”. The chance moment that sets this story in motion occurs in East Berlin in 1986, as two characters meet on a bus: Katharina, a 19-year-old student; and Hans, a married man older than her father. They fall in love and begin an affair, and their thoughts are slightly to one side of each other from the start:

From now on, he thinks, the responsibility for their existence is entirely hers. He has to protect himself from himself. Maybe she’s a monster?

She thinks, he wants to prepare me for difficult times ahead. He wants to protect me. Protect me from myself, and so he gives me the power of decision over us.

He thinks, as long as she wants us, it won’t be wrong.

She thinks, if he leaves everything to me, then he’ll see what love means.

He thinks, she won’t understand what she’s agreed to until much later.

And she, he’s putting himself in my hands.

Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Over time, the couple’s differences and contradictions emerge more sharply, with Hans emerging as abusive and controlling. In the background, life is changing after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Things don’t necessarily turn out as the characters may have expected, with the reunification or their relationship. 

Kairos does not present a straightforward one-on-one allegory between wider society and the protagonists’ affair. But relationship and society echo each other in the ways that they change, and the result is a novel that opens up further as you venture in. 

Published by Granta.

Click here to read my other posts on the 2024 International Booker Prize.

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